Connect People with Developmental Disabilities with their Communities
March Is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month
MERCERVILLE – Isolation has been a common issue for individuals with disabilities since long before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has worsened the sense of seclusion for many in this vulnerable population. While connections with others, either in person or virtually, are beneficial – and actually essential – for everyone, the pandemic has made it more difficult to socialize, especially for individuals with disabilities. Furthermore, isolation could result in the develop-ment or exacerbation of mental illness for anyone, and individuals with disabilities could be at higher risk of developing not only mental illness, but also coronavirus and other physical illnesses. These important health issues are being addressed by the New Jersey Legislative Disability Caucus.
“While everybody has experienced the feeling of loneliness and isolation during the pandemic, people with developmental disabilities often were removed from communities long before COVID. The importance of a support network of like-minded individuals who have similar lived experience is something that should not be overlooked. It is also important to consider the limitations that people with developmental disabilities have to accessing treatment that they need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Service providers who work with the developmental disabilities community have done incredible work with providing medical care for this population and with connecting them with their communities,” said Debra L. Wentz, PhD, President and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies (NJAMHAA).
The New Jersey Legislative Disability Caucus was established in the beginning of 2021 through the leadership of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities. It is a bipartisan forum within the New Jersey Legislature for lawmakers and their staff to consider the impact on the disability community when creating public policies. The Caucus also aims to increase awareness and understand the disabilities service system and issues facing people with disabilities and their families. On January 26th, the Caucus held a meeting to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities and how the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a disproportionate toll on this community. This is important as not only does COVID-19 pose a threat to a person with developmental disabilities’ health, but impacts their socialization and their relationship with their community.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that adults with disabilities are three times more likely than adults without disabilities to have diabetes, heart disease or a stroke. The pandemic could also be particularly isolating for people with developmental disabilities. For example, many group homes have limited the number of people visiting group homes at the same time to reduce the amount of exposure that vulnerable residents would have. The closure of day programs also can reduce the number of social interactions that individuals with developmental disabilities would have, compared to before the pandemic. While programs have moved to a virtual space, there are some people who do not have access to the Internet or other technologies that would allow them to participate in day programs or connect with their loved ones.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many people with developmental disabilities felt isolated. Some individuals could have been prevented from interacting with their communities because of
being homebound, having limited transportation options and financial constraints and feeling unwell due to symptoms associated with their disabilities. Additionally, people with develop-mental disabilities could feel that they stood out in social groups because of their disabilities, especially if they are physical disabilities. People who have “invisible disabilities”, or disabilities that tend to be primarily neurological, may also feel removed from social groups because the individuals in the groups may have difficulty understanding their disabilities or may doubt the disabilities are real. This can impact the mental health of individuals who have developmental disabilities. According to the CDC, when surveyed in 2018, approximately 17.4 million adults with disabilities stated that they experienced 14 or more mentally unhealthy days within the past 30 days. The CDC added that mental distress this frequent is often associated with an increased use of health services, mental illness and limitations that can be experienced in daily life.
Behavioral health providers play a critical role in addressing these issues that impact individuals’ quality of life. They not only deliver care, but also empower individuals with disabilities to function in and contribute to their communities, as well as engage in social activities. NJAMHAA members that provide services to individuals with developmental disabilities include Alternatives, Inc.; Archway Programs; Catholic Charities, Diocese of Metuchen; Declarations, Inc.; East Orange General Hospital; Easterseals New Jersey; Inroads to Opportunities; Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties; JFS Clinton; Legacy Treatment Services; North Jersey Friendship House, Inc.; Oaks Integrated Care; Pillar Care Continuum; SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc.; Trinitas Regional Medical Center; Vantage Health System; Wiley Christian Adult Day Services; and Youth Consultation Service.
March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Each year, the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities (NACDD) partners with disability service organizations, advocates, developmental disability councils and other organizations to create social media campaigns that highlight the many ways in which people with and without disabilities come together to form strong, diverse communities. The goal of the campaign is to raise awareness about the inclusion of people with developmental disabilities in all areas of community life, as well as awareness of the barriers that people with disabilities still sometimes face in connecting with the communities in which they live. To learn more about Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, click here to visit the NACDD website. To participate in the social media campaign, use “#DDAwareness2021”.
The New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, Inc. (NJAMHAA) is a statewide trade association representing 153 organizations that serve New Jersey residents with mental illness, substance use disorders, intellectual/developmental disabilities and their families. Our members may be found in every county and almost every community statewide. They serve more than 500,000 children and adults each year and contribute to the economy through 61,000 direct and indirect jobs. NJAMHAA’s mission is to promote the value of its members as the highest quality behavioral healthcare providers for the residents of New Jersey through advocacy and professional development.