In the beginning, there were just parents. Parents of children with special needs. Some needs were physical, some intellectual, some behavioral, and many were combinations. They were looking for ways to improve the quality of life for their children, resources to assist with care and education.
Over time, they found each other. They began collaborating and sharing knowledge. That collaboration grew into a grass roots movement. Local and state chapters were formed. leading to a national organization. Advocacy turned into lobbying, ultimately resulting in legislation. Children with special needs received access to public education. Discrimination due to a disability was deemed illegal, and access to public buildings and shops was opened up. Life for our children brightened.
Collaboration and advocacy continued. More services and assistance became available. Institutional care faded away, and community-based services became the norm. Improvements were significant and welcome. Individuals who once would have been relegated to passive lives with little interaction with the world around them, now held jobs, engaged with society, and became contributing members of their communities. It wasn’t all roses, but improvement had been achieved.
However, times have changed and the political landscape has shifted. At the federal level, safety net programs such as SNAP, Medicaid, and SSI are under attack and on the verge of being cut. Waiting lists for services grow longer as states try to trim expenses instead of looking at ways to increase revenues. Even the accepted practice of providing public education for children with special needs is being threatened. Many of the gains achieved through decades of advocacy are in danger of being rolled back.
For all the good done by The Arc chapters at all levels, struggles abound. Some chapters are facing financial and/or leadership challenges. Engagement is waning. We need a renewal of the collaborative spirit that created our organization and moved the country forward. Our children need us to revive that collaborative spirit. They need our advocacy. They need us to vote accordingly in elections at all levels. Sitting on the sidelines and expecting others to carry the ball is not a viable option.
If you’re not currently a part of a local chapter, become involved. If you’re already involved, seek out others who can be part of the collaboration. Step up your own game to take a Board or an officer position. Volunteer to serve and help with fund raising. Network with your local business community leaders to raise awareness of issues and solutions that are needed. Contact your representatives to let them know what you consider important and what will win your vote. Work with other chapters or with the State chapter to share success stories and ideas for defending the rights that we’ve worked so hard to achieve for individuals with I/DD.
As has been demonstrated in the past, there’s strength in numbers, strength in knowledge, and strength at the polls. We can invoke that strength by working together with the same spirit and energy shown in our grass roots days. Make it happen. We can’t afford to wait.