Our people with disabilities on island may look different, or act different, but that is because they are just as unique as you are. Believe it or not our people with disabilities on island also have many things in common with you, including but not limited to the desire to love and be loved, to be included in all aspects of our community living, and to live the way they choose to.
Since Nov. 21, 2001, when I began working for NMPASI, it seemed at least to me that one of the biggest barriers for people with disabilities when dealing with others is the fear of the unknown. It is just a defense mechanism, and a natural human reaction when confronted with someone or thing unfamiliar.
I know when we first meet someone who looks or acts different, we may have our guard up, and that is okay, but don’t be afraid. Try to talk to them, get to know them, before judging them. Like the old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” give the person an opportunity by getting to know them first.
During the first year I worked at NMPASI, I met parents of a child with Cerebral Palsy who used a wheelchair. The parents met with me in their home, but the child was in the backroom. I asked about the child and they told me that when they bring him out, he scares guests away. He flails his arms, makes weird noises, and drools on himself. That is why when they have visitors they put him in the back room. I was shocked, and did not know how to respond to this due to my lack of experience as an advocate for our people with disabilities.
Today, I am better at my job, and take pride in our efforts of NMPASI to treat everyone we meet with dignity and respect, regardless of disability.
About midway through my time at NMPASI, I met with law enforcement folks who got complaints from storeowners who claim a person with a disability hangs out around their store all the time. I asked them if the individual with a disability was breaking any laws, they said “no, but he walks funny and seems drunk all the time.” I informed our law enforcement folks that the person, if not a danger to himself or others, should be left alone, after all this is America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.
A couple of years ago, I met a man who asked me what he should do with his brother who was just walking around island with no real direction or reason. I asked him if he did anything wrong like steal or cause injury, and brother said “no,” so I said to him “let him be free like the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea.”
The Council on Developmental Disabilities (CDD) in 2004 put out a sticker that read “Attitudes are the real disability.” I appreciated this sticker so much, I put on my truck until the truck completely rusted out, and sticker fell off.
Nowadays, I know things are changing for the better, but we still have a ways to go, as far as fighting the stigma and fear of people with disabilities in our community.
With this said, and to help alleviate more fear of people with disabilities, I invite everyone to take part in the upcoming Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month (DDAM) and National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) activities on March 7, 8, and 9, 2016. These training dates are for Saipan. Tinian and Rota will have their own days in March for the same presentations on topics including but not limited to self-advocacy, laws that protect our people with disabilities, Workforce Improvement Opportunity Act, Individualized Education Plans, Individualized Plans for Employment, and the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines. Please stay tuned to our local papers for venue for Saipan, and dates of trainings on Tinian and Rota as well.
Another way to help dissipate fear of people with disabilities is to be part of the Autism Society of the CNMI’s (ASCNMI’s) April Autism Awareness Month (AAM) activities including the Proclamation on April 1, the “Hot Dog Walk and Family Fun Day” which is a three-mile walk from the Last Command Post in Marpi to the Grotto and Suicide Cliff split in the road and back to the Last Command Post for water, hot dogs, and with all the fixings and fellowship. Finally, the culminating event for AAM 2016 is Quiz Nite 5!!! At this event, teams of however many folks try to take the most points as a team from a total of 50 possible points. This trivia challenge is a whole evening’s affair with dinner, auctions, and raffle prizes. The first place team has bragging rights until April 2017!
Let us come together as a community to learn and become more aware of disabilities and issues surrounding people with disabilities in our beautiful island jewels in the sea.
For more on disabilities, or issues surrounding disabilities, do not hesitate to contact us at NMPASI (670) 235-7273 or 4, TTY and Fax at 235-7275, or online at www.nmpasi.org.
“Disabilities are a natural part of the Human Experience”—U.S. Congress (1973)
Thomas M. Thornburgh
NMPASI program manager