By: Bill O’Connell
THE VILLAGE REPORTER
Down syndrome, a chromosomal condition, occurs once in every 691 babies born in this country, according to the National Down Syndrome Society. This may sound like a small number but there are approximately 400,000 people in the United States with this genetic defect. To put it into perspective that is eight times the number of the combined population of Fulton and Williams County.
Recently, prior to a local boy’s high school basketball game, a young student sang the national anthem acapella as everyone stood facing the flag. Early into her rendition, one of the visiting cheerleaders, a girl with Down syndrome, began to sing along with her. Unfortunately, judging from some muffled sounds coming from the home team’s student section, the second singer did not receive the same respect as the first.
Soon after the contest, to their credit, the home school’s administration acted swiftly and appropriately to ensure this behavior would not be tolerated and would not happen again.
But if there was one positive that came out of this rare and isolated event it was that it brought to light just how far we, as a society, have come in the treatment of those with developmental disabilities.
In all likelihood this would not have happened 25 or 30 years ago. Not because we were more sensitive or aware or knowledgeable and knew what was best for the children and adults in the DD community. No, quite the contrary. They were essentially segregated from society. The conventional wisdom then and forever before then was to sequester them together in special classes or special schools to teach them minimal skills to accomplish menial tasks in areas specifically designed for them. Or worse, some were just kept at home.
In those days that girl would probably not been a member of that high school much less have been standing, in uniform, with her fellow cheerleaders, supporting her team. Fortunately, the times and the thinking have changed dramatically for the better. The Fulton County Board of Developmental Disabilities(DD) in Wauseon and its Williams County counterpart in Montpelier are prime and shining examples of that change.
If you visit either of the county offices, you will notice the buildings both resemble a small school because at one time that is exactly what they were. “We segregated the kids. We put them in a school like this because that’s what we believed was the best way to educate them,” said Beth Friess, Superintendent of the Fulton County Board of DD.
Beginning in the early 1990’s things in Fulton County began to change. By 1991 all the students, with the exception of the preschoolers, had been moved to their respective public schools. In the mid 1990’s the preschoolers followed.
“We said they should be where everybody else is,” said Friess explaining the major shift in philosophy. “Because then they are getting the same education. And while they may need some extra help in that education it does not mean you don’t want them around everybody else where their peers are. And we want them participating in what everyone else is doing at that school. Like cheerleading.”
And once they are finished with school, which could be up to age 22 for some, they, like everyone else, transition into the work force or into some of the agency’s adult services programs. “If they are working on a job they may need some help learning a job or they may need some ongoing help to keep that job because there are many pieces to it but they are out there, working in the community just like anybody else. That’s the ultimate goal,” said Friess.
What may have facilitated that change were the advancements in health care for people with Down syndrome who often suffer from congenital heart defects, respiratory and hearing problems and thyroid conditions. The life expectancy for these individuals, as late as 1983 was just 25 years of age. Today it’s 60 years and still increasing. Thankfully, they are with us far longer now.
The same transformation has taken place in Williams County as well. “We actually don’t operate any programs anymore,” remarked Debra Guilford, Superintendent of the Williams County Board of DD. “The past several years all the school age and preschool kids have been in the public schools now and are no longer segregated. Same way with the adults. They have a choice of which adult day service program they want to go to. We do not operate any of those here at the county board. We coordinate that. We monitor that and we fund that but it’s all about individual choice.”
Coordination and placement of individuals into schools is done through the Service and Support Administrator(SSA). “There is interaction between the SSA and the individual, the parents, the family and whatever school they would want to attend. It’s a whole team approach,” explained Cody Chrisman, the Community Services Director and supervisor of the SSA’s. “We want to make sure they can continue on the path they see themselves on.”
Well before graduation programs are made available to students to help learn work skills to help the transition into the work force.
In Williams County, when it comes time for an individual with disabilities to enter the working community, the Board of DD works with a state agency called Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities(OOD). The OOD provides counselors that will help lay out an employment plan with input from the SSA that will, hopefully, lead to employment and virtually full integration into American society.
Next month, March, as declared by President Ronald Regan in 1987, is National Disability Awareness Month. In conjunction with this proclamation, now in its 28th year, Guilford and her staff have contracted a professional company to make a video with interviews of Williams County individuals with disabilities and their family members to help raise awareness on a more local and personal level.
“The theme for this year’s DD Awareness is ‘What’s Your Story.’ It’s really to educate the community about individuals with disabilities being so much more than their disability. They have jobs. They have family. They have friends. They go out into the community and do things. That’s really where the education starts. When you look at a person for who they are and not their disability.” Once the video is complete it will be decimated around the community including all the Williams County schools.
Education and awareness are ongoing processes that cannot be ignored or neglected. To do so allows stereotypes to take root and poor decisions and behavior to take place. The efforts and the progress made by both the Fulton and Williams County Board of Developmental Disabilities has been and will continue to be exemplary. All we have to do is pay attention.
Bill O’Connell may be reached at