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New York City

Parents With Developmental Disabilities
By Dr. Joel M. Levy

Hollywood has finally learned that characters playing the role of people with developmental disabilities don’t have to be seen as misfits. No longer does a character have to encompass virtually every stereotype associated with a particular disability.

Perhaps that explains why so many of us in the field of social services are praising the movie I Am Sam as ground breaking. Here is a rare glimpse into the life of a person with mental retardation, who is shown holding a job, socializing with his friends and contributing to his community.

Sean Penn’s performance as Sam Dawson, a single-parent with mental retardation raising his typically developing daughter Lucy, is compelling. As Lucy’s cognitive abilities begin to rapidly eclipse those of her father’s, Sam’s life is shattered when authorities try to take Lucy away from him.

Unfortunately, nationwide, there are many parents with developmental and/or learning disabilities who, like Sam, lack the support needed to help keep these families together.

“The assumption that parents with developmental disabilities can’t benefit from reunification services just isn’t true,” said Megan Kishbaum, Ph.D., founder and executive director of Through the Looking Glass, a California-based organization dedicated to helping parents with all types of disabilities raise children. “Based on our experience, it’s a lot better to have
prevention and support services in place, so no one ever has to get involved with child protection agencies. Reunification services can be very effective.”

According to Through the Looking Glass, 430,257 people with mental retardation or other developmental disability have children. That represents nearly 28 percent of all people who have a developmental disability.

Lula is a 46-year-old mother with a learning disability, raising her eight-year-old son alone. She was so impressed with I Am Sam that she encouraged all her colleagues at work to see it.

“This is something more people should see because then they’ll learn that people with disabilities have needs and desires,” Lula said. “They can provide love. And when you’re raising a child, you need to have love and support.”

Lula is one of the lucky ones who is receiving support. As a member of YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities’ Parents with Special Needs Program, Lula can get help by calling her parent counselor. If she feels frustrated, she attends the program’s parents support group.

Let’s face it, parenting, at best, is a challenge. And every new parent, regardless of ability, needs support–be it the help of a neighbor, friend, family member, a “how-to” book, or social service agency.

As the movie I Am Sam points out, being a loving parent has little to do with educational diplomas, bank accounts, or job titles. Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays the role of Rita, Sam’s pro-bono attorney, has all the trappings of affluence and success but excruciatingly little time to sit down and just “be” with her son. Sam is a bus boy for Starbuck’s. His job in no way appears to compromise the quality time that he spends with his daughter, Lucy.

And, what we have found is that a parent’s love for his or her child provides a powerful motivation for learning skills. Many parenting skills can be taught, coached, and modeled over time. And where they can’t be learned, the skills may need to be supplemented by other supports, including: in-home supports; financial; health supports; transportation assistance; and, work assistance.

The key to the success of YAI’s Parents with Special Needs Program is the parent’s desire to improve his or her skills. The in-home training is tailored to the individual. It is my hope that I Am Sam prompts every state funder for social services to see that parents with special needs require the kind of supports that will offer practical help and an ear to listen. The bottom line to the story of Sam and Lucy is that no loving parent and child should be separated because social services are not available.#

Joel M. Levy, D.S.W., is Chief Executive Officer of YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities.


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