SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — “One of the most important things we need is to be treated with dignity and respect,” says JESPY House client Debra D. She is a long-time participant in the programs and services provided by the South Orange nonprofit that supports the independence of adults with Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities. “We contribute to the community,” she adds. “Just because some people don’t understand us, doesn’t mean that we’re not smart.”

Debra’s sentiments echo the national call for public awareness regarding the abilities and needs of individuals with developmental disabilities. The issue is brought to the forefront every March as people celebrate Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.

Signed into law in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, the recognition was intended to encourage and provide opportunities to help those with disabilities lead fulfilling and productive lives. For Debra, who lives on her own and has participated in the workforce, the process should be a no-brainer.

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“Understanding that people need to make changes regarding people with disabilities can start within high schools,” she explains. “I heard about one high school that started pairing non-disabled students with disabled students. Two of the students ended up learning a lot from each other and actually went to their prom together. If awareness starts at an early age, then it helps. People will be exposed sooner.”

JESPY client Hillary F. agrees. Her experiences, she says, as a youngster and in high school could have been more positive. “When I was little, I really struggled in school and at camp,” she shares. “Other kids used to make fun of me because they didn’t understand. Parents need to help their children understand people with disabilities.”

According to Hillary, understanding arrived when she became a client at JESPY. “Through all the programs and services, I get all the help that I need.” Hillary is an active participant in many of JESPY’s 100 online sessions, all of which have been taking place since the start of the pandemic. From knitting, music appreciation, and book club to group discussions on health, safety, and current events, Hillary continually finds ways to connect with others, prior to and now during the COVID lockdown.

Like Debra, Hillary excels as an artisan. Her knitted products include everything from hats and headbands to cell phone cases and baskets. Debra designs stuffed animals and beaded accessories. Their wares, which are part of JESPY’s Art Factory, where clients can showcase and sell their art, can be purchased by visiting JESPY Shop page at

“We’re able to do things, and we’re able to be creative,” says Debra. “We also have concerns about housing issues and transportation issues. We want to be safe and live in nice and affordable housing. There are lots of issues that are important to us, just like they are with everyone else.”

There are more than six million individuals living in the U.S. who have developmental disabilities that include cerebral palsy, autism, spina bifida, Down syndrome and muscular dystrophy. The journey to inclusiveness and understanding is ongoing. 

“People who have intellectual and developmental disabilities want to know that they’re not alone,” says Hillary. “They want to feel that they can make it and that they can get help when it’s needed. That’s why this month is so important.”

JESPY House supports 260 adults in the areas of clinical services, athletics and fitness, case management, work readiness and employment, recreational and Day Habilitation programming, housing, and more. For additional information, visit



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