“We’re Not That Different”
Thoughts on Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month

by Linda Kloss, Vice President of Residential and Support Services
for MHA

A woman I’ve known for 26 years passed away recently. The last few years she lived in a quiet home in Longmeadow, but before that she lived for decades in the community. She had her own apartment, worked at a grocery store, bowled in a league, and volunteered at the Red Cross. Over many years, she and her partner developed a meaningful and loving relationship. As she got older she moved, with her partner, to a residence that offered more assistance. As she neared life’s end, she had hospice care and died peacefully at home with her partner holding her hand.

Her story doesn’t sound out of the ordinary. Nor should it.

The organization I work for, Mental Health Association (MHA), was created in 1960 to help people with developmental disabilities or mental illness to transition out of institutions and into homelike settings in the community. The concept of “deinstitutionalization” was new at the time and it took the pioneering efforts of people including those who founded MHA to demonstrate that community-based living with appropriate supports wasn’t just possible but preferable.
At the time it was a radical new approach. How does it translate into practical, day-to-day living? Consider the woman in Longmeadow. With supports personalized to her needs and wants, she lived in her own apartment. She had a job. She took part in social and volunteer activities. She made friends and found the love of her life. As she needed more help, MHA found the right residential supports. Eventually she died, as all of us will someday, but she was fortunate to pass surrounded by people who cared for her and about her.

The point is, individuals with developmental disabilities aren’t that different. Like anyone, they want to have friends, love and be loved, and live their own life. They want to reach into their own pocket to pay for something they want with money they earned. They want to express themselves, help others, and be recognized for their contributions. They want to go to school or to a ball game or on a trip. They want to be heard and to know their voice and opinions matter.

During National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, MHA wants you to appreciate—and to share with others—that the people we serve are not that different. Erik Nelson is not that different. He lives in Chicopee in an MHA residence he shares with four other people with developmental disabilities. For 20 years, Erik has worked stocking shelves at CVS. He has a job coach who helps guide his work, but Erik does the work himself. He earns his paycheck.

The staff at Erik’s MHA residence start his day with a healthy breakfast, help him make and pack a healthy lunch, make sure he’s dressed in a clean shirt for work, and send him out the door with words of encouragement for his shift at CVS. Erik loves his job, and by providing him a supportive, homelike environment, MHA helps ensure that he is ready for work.

Erik is one of the hundreds of people MHA serves in programs that are driven by what each participant wants and needs. Our role is to help our participants be themselves and lead the lives they choose, while ensuring that their overall needs are met and individual dignity is assured. When you see our participants out taking part in the communities where they live, they hope you will say hello and remember one important thing: “We’re not that different.”

About MHA
MHA is a nonprofit provider of residential and support services based in Springfield, MA. We provide services throughout the Greater Springfield area to people impacted by mental illness, developmental disabilities, substance abuse and homelessness. MHA has developed a continuum of housing and support options so participants with a wide variety of needs can develop to their fullest potential and the support to pursue their personal vision and meaningfully participate in the life of their community. MHA’s core values are Respect, Integrity and Compassion.