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Greater awareness needed for developmental (dis)abilities

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Brent Bush Brent Bush
Michael Bush Michael Bush
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Brent Bush is an attorney in Wheeling, West Virginia and board president of Russell Nebsitt Services Inc. Michael Bush is an attorney with Bowles Rice LLP in Morgantown and a member of the board of directors of Special Olympics of West Virginia.

In our humble opinion, a healthier, more inclusive society is a better society. 

In a recent article, 

Forbes Magazine recognized March as Developmental Disability Awareness Month, urging us all to better serve our friends, relatives, neighbors, and community members who have special needs. 

Developmental disabilities, also known as special needs, are disabilities resulting from the impairment of one's intellectual functioning or adaptive behavior, such as autism or cerebral palsy, usually from a very young age. Developmental disabilities also may be the result of events, such as traumatic brain injury, which occur later in life. 

Nationally, 4.6 million Americans live with developmental disabilities. In West Virginia, nearly 134,000 individuals between the ages of 18 and 65 are diagnosed with a cognitive disability. Add the nearly 7,000 West Virginia students with intellectual disabilities, and the need for developmental disability awareness increases dramatically. 

For centuries, society devalued persons with special needs, doubting their talents and dismissing their ambitions. However, stigmas began yielding to compassion and society began the slow process of understanding. Cloaked in the spirit of inalienable civil rights, groundbreaking programs formed as the result of legal mandates, government programming and private initiatives. These programs provide services to individuals with special needs to make a "normal life" just a bit easier, including education, health care, employment, housing and peer support. But, talk to professionals in the field, and they will tell you that much work is yet to be done. Society still underestimates and, at times, overprotects individuals with special needs.

This month, three simple tenets will help us take action to better represent the special needs community. First, awareness means being aware of current community services and future needs. State agencies, independent councils, private-sector programs, such as Wheeling's Russell Nesbitt Services Inc., and research institutes, such as the WVU Center for Excellence in Disabilities, exist in communities to provide necessary services and advocate on behalf of the special needs community. However, funding cuts and disjointed resource planning affect the viability of these valuable entities. We believe such limitations should not bar progress, and urge the state to consider forming strategic partnerships, sharing resources, empowering independent agencies, and listening to local concerns. Let us become aware of current services, and assess future needs and improvements.

Second, awareness means being prepared. Special needs require special planning, and individuals with developmental disabilities are best served when a plan is in place to determine who makes decisions, who will be the caretaker when a parent can no longer fulfill this role, what a guardian should do, how financial planning and special needs trusts may provide current and future support and other day-to-day necessities. Despite these planning tools, let us not forget that many individuals with special needs can self-advocate when given the proper tools and preparation.

Finally, awareness means being engaged. Organizations throughout West Virginia dedicate their entire operations to serving individuals with special needs. Special Olympics of West Virginia, for example, serves more than 5,000 athletes and provides year-round training, mentorship, and athletic competition throughout the state. Certainly, organizations like Special Olympics benefit its constituents, but perhaps with equal importance, also impact the lives of its generous volunteers and communities. Help us reach out to individuals with special needs that would benefit from such programs, and this month, consider contacting a local organization to see how you can plug into existing outreach and service. If volunteering for a special needs organization is outside of your comfort zone, try it.

This month, let us commit to a greater awareness of issues that affect individuals with developmental disabilities. Let us be inspired to act and serve our fellow West Virginians. Let us celebrate success, while working against continued discrimination and ineffective services. The challenge for the future is to sustain and to expand the levels and varieties of services available to our community — but with creative solutions that combine intellectual talent and financial support, the future looks brighter. Let us pursue a healthier, more inclusive society, which is, after all, a better society.