We live in a country that prides itself as being the beacon of equality, but as a people we still tolerate, and at times participate in, the discrimination against people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  While we may be far too reverent to use derogatory language when speaking of religion or race, we rarely find it inappropriate to use words like “retard” or “retarded” in casual conversation.

Why is this?

As Americans, we pride ourselves in living in a country which has largely superseded its indiscretions of segregation. However, many public schools refuse to socialize students with intellectual and developmental disabilities into mainstream classes, regardless of their level of cognitive ability.  Instead these students are often segregated and placed into a single classroom that severely limits their opportunities to socialize with their “non-disabled” peers.  Instead of providing funds to assist in building proper supports for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live independently in the community, we choose to funnel money into state institutions that are consistently under investigation for instances of gross neglect and abuse. These two actions serve to unofficially categorize those with intellectual and developmental disabilities as second class citizens, making derogatory language and unkind actions somehow more tolerable to society.

As the younger brother of a person with an intellectual and developmental disability (previously known as mental retardation), I have been given a distinctly unique and insightful perspective on the challenges that face families in similar situations.  During the past five years, I have traveled through the state of Texas, visiting with families much like my own, understanding their challenges and their struggles.  Although every one of these families is unique, they all share a common dream – that their children will grow up in a world which will allow them a sincere opportunity to be successful and happy.  Unfortunately for many parents who have children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, this dream often remains just that: a dream, never to see the light of reality.

Even with the advancements in civil and social rights pertaining to people with disabilities – most notably the Americans with Disability Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – I am still often left dumbfounded. I wonder: How can this be?  Are people simply unaware of these circumstances of discrimination against those with intellectual or development disabilities?  Or are people comfortable with the status quo due to the fact that those being persecuted often have difficulty expressing themselves?

Frankly it doesn’t matter, because the question “How can this be?” should no longer occupy our minds time but should firmly be replaced with “How can we be agents of change?”

In Texas, the 82nd legislative session will bring proposals for legislation aimed at addressing some of these instances of discrimination through increased inclusion in educational settings, funding for community supports, employment incentives for businesses that are willing to hire people with disabilities, improving transportation for people with disabilities and many other issues affecting this particular constituency.

As a brother and citizen, I strongly urge people everywhere to take up the fight against this blatant discrimination.  This fight could be in educating those around you as to the hurtful nature of using words such as “retard” or “retarded” or looking into upcoming Texas legislation. Whatever role you choose to play, I encourage you to be involved and not let this discrimination go unnoticed or unaddressed.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.