Opinion: Marking Developmental Disability Awareness Month During the COVID Crisis

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My connection to Best Buddies and the Intellectual and Developmental Disability (IDD) Community started with a bit of a selfish desire. I really wanted to meet Tom Brady.

Alex Gray

I would gladly pedal in a charity bike ride if I got to meet the G.O.A.T. But what came from that initial interest in meeting Brady, turned into one of the most transformative experiences of my life. It started me on a journey that forged life-long friendships with partners cemented by countless hours of training at Regan’s Motivated Fitness in South Boston and across the streets of Greater Boston.

Best Buddies International has a mission of enhancing the lives of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities by creating one-to-one opportunities for friendships, integrated employment, leadership development, and inclusive living situations. Intellectual or developmental disabilities are a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas. In 2017, it was estimated that there were 7.3 million Americans living with an intellectual or developmental disability.

As someone with a disability, I know first-hand how important it is to have opportunities. When I went blind as a child, it was my family, friends, and teachers who pushed me to participate in a variety of activities both inside and outside of school. The world can sometimes be a difficult place for people with disabilities, especially when you are young or newly disabled. So often it is a simple opportunity to participate that can be the difference between someone with a disability finding or not finding their confidence, dignity and the strength to forge a path to the life they want for themselves.

On a bright June morning in 2016, Michael and I started on a 100-mile journey on a tandem bike from Dorchester to Cape Cod. Over the course of nine hours, we weaved our way down the eastern coast of Massachusetts along waterfront coasts, through parks, across bridges, and ultimately to the beaches of Hyannis Port. It was a journey that transformed me as a person and put me on a course towards better health and fitness and showed me things about myself that I never dreamed possible.

Ride day was also a day that pushed us both mentally and physically to the limits, especially as we struggled to climb two massive hills that were conveniently placed towards the very end of our course. But what grounded us on the ride and eventually allowed us to finish the race was a desire to make a difference in the lives of people in the IDD Community. It was the words of Best Buddies participants about the impact that the program had made on their lives through friendships gained or through meaningful jobs that were obtained. It was also the words of the Best Buddies volunteers and the employers who spoke about the ways in which Best Buddies participants had improved their lives or organizations through the kindness, loyalty, and dedication on daily displayed by participants.

And while the pandemic has posed challenges for so many in our world, it has fallen especially hard on those in the IDD Community. A recent study found that next to old age that IDD was the highest risk factor for COVID fatality and that individuals with IDD were 5.9 times more likely to die from COVID than the general population. Organizations serving individuals in the IDD Community with career services reported in a recent survey that their clients with IDD have lost more than 50% of their jobs due to the pandemic. And to put this in context, a 2014 study found that the unemployment rate for individuals in the IDD Community was all ready more than twice as high as the general population.

March marks the annual recognition of Developmental Disability Awareness Month. It is a time to raise awareness of the importance of inclusion of members of the IDD Community in all aspects of society. Now more than ever, as we work through and eventually recover from the pandemic, we must double our efforts to include members of the IDD Community not only because it is the right thing to do but equally important because individuals with IDD have much to contribute to our world and make any organization they belong to a better one. To every leader in Boston whether that be in government, non-profit, or the private sector, the IDD Community can play a role in improving your organization and there is no better time than Developmental Disability Awareness Month to start this work.

Alex Gray, a graduate of Boston College and Suffolk University Law School, works for the city of Boston and is running for At-Large Boston City Council. If elected, he would be the first blind Boston City Councilor.