ELIZABETH, NJ - People with developmental disabilities are on a mission. In the fall of 2010, the federal government officially eliminated the words “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded individual” from the federal registry, replacing them with “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability.” People with developmental disabilities and their advocates who had long fought for the change celebrated the victory.

Today the fight is to change the term “people with disabilities” to “people with different abilities,” and local advocates are using National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month in March to call attention to that effort. National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, created in 1987, is an annual effort to promote respect for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and to educate others about the spectrum of abilities. 

Local advocates for this cause include Gary Rubin, Myrta Rosa and Juana Quinn, members of Community Access Unlimited (CAU). CAU is a Union County-based, statewide nonprofit that strives to integrate people with disabilities and at-risk youth into the general community through comprehensive supports.

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Rubin is co-founder of CAU’s self-advocacy group New American Movement for People with Disabilities, (www.nampwd.org) and Rosa and Quinn also are active in the group.

“We visit our legislators and let them know what is important to people with disabilities,” said Rubin. “We make our voices known.”

Recently, members of the group visited the new executive director of Disability Rights New Jersey to discuss the organization’s name and other issues of concern to them.

“We talked about changing the name from disabilities to different abilities,” Rosa said. “I feel like with a different description, you’re fighting for everyone. It doesn’t matter what kind of disability or ability you have.”

The advocates stressed while March brings national awareness to the abilities and concerns of people with developmental disabilities, their fight to achieve recognition as equals in the community is a year-round effort. For example, Rubin regularly works with people with disabilities in the state’s developmental centers, in day programs and in schools, teaching them about community integration and the importance of “living their lives,” he said.

“People with different abilities greatly contribute to the community,” said Charlene Walker, community organizer at CAU. “They are consumers and taxpayers. They pay rent and work – 18.6 million people with different abilities are employed in this nation. They have so many abilities, but too often they are not recognized for their contributions to society.

“The key for people with different abilities to be able to move forward is inclusion,” she continued. “They are among the most marginalized people in the country. You see movements but there’s the notion that people with different abilities can’t be part of them. People with different abilities are concerned with racism, fair housing, income-disparity, but too often they are excluded from those discussions. The advocates around this table attempt to make sure people with different abilities are included because they enrich these movements.”

Rubin, Rosa, and Quinn said they have seen progress made in the recognition of people with disabilities, but the fight for equity is far from over.

“It’s better than it was when the founders of the disability movement first started,” Quinn said. “But not enough. We want people to look at us for who we are, not for our disability.”

About Community Access Unlimited

Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 40th year in 2019, supports people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community. CAU provides support and gives voice to adults and youth who traditionally have little support and no voice in society. CAU helps people with housing, life skills, employment, money management, socialization, and civic activities. CAU also supports opportunities for advocacy through training in assertiveness, decision-making and civil right. CAU currently serves more than 6,000 individuals and families, with the number served growing each year. For more information about CAU and its services, contact us by phone at 908.354.3040, online at www.caunj.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.