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Dot Nary: Despite Kansas state rep’s view, disabled people will not ‘rot at home’ (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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Recently, a Kansas state representative made extremely offensive remarks about some of his constituents. 

As March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, celebrating the inclusion and contributions of people with developmental disabilities in all aspects of community life (per the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities), I want to call attention to these remarks. 

Note: The term “developmental disability” (DD) is similar to “intellectual or developmental disability” (IDD), and both replace the term “mental retardation,” which is obsolete and regarded as derogatory.

Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican, described some of his constituents as “people who really can’t do anything … they will rot at home.”

Continuing this description, as if referring to a litter of stray puppies, he said these people could be “taken care of. They’re fed. They have a place to go … and they’re happy.”

The context of Tarwater’s remarks was a proposal by the Kansas House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee, which he chairs. This proposal would allow, for the first time, sheltered workshops paying disabled people less than minimum wage to benefit from an existing state tax credit program. I strongly disagree with this proposal because I believe that a minimum wage law shouldn’t allow exceptions for any worker. Thus, I don’t support workshops that pay less than the minimum wage benefitting from a tax credit. 

The legislation is complicated but I am not focusing on this issue here. Rather, I want to address the prejudicial attitude revealed in his statement and his stereotypical and outdated view of some of the people he was elected to represent: disabled people.   

Although we still have much more to do to create an accessible and accepting society, people with disabilities — including those with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD), deafness or hearing loss, blindness or low vision, paralysis, amputations, brain injury, psychiatric conditions, limitations due to cancer, etc. — have greatly increased opportunities to live, work, recreate, and do what everyone else does in their communities, just as those of us living with disabilities should. 

Thankfully, the days of shutting people away in institutions where horrifying inhumane treatment happened too frequently are largely over. For anyone unaware of this history, here is a link to one of the worst cases, which occurred at New York’s Willowbrook State Developmental Center in the 1960s.

Contrary to Tarwater’s perception of the role of disabled people in society, people with all types of disabilities are capable of participating in and contributing to their communities — and they do! Work, in itself, represents so much more than a paycheck; it also provides social connections, status, and a sense of purpose in life. 

Some disabled people need support, such as job coaches, personal care attendants and transportation, to facilitate their employment. Funding for these support services is critical. Several programs in our community successfully advocate and develop opportunities for people with IDD to participate in the workforce. 

The days of people “rotting at home” are long over, and should not be an acceptable outcome for anyone with a disability — and an elected representative should know that about their constituents. Just as people with disabilities are entitled to an education in the least restrictive environment under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), so do they have a right to live in the community and to participate to the best of their ability — and that includes employment. Comments like Tarwater’s perpetuate stereotypes about people with disabilities, especially those with IDD, as being incapable, dependent, and unworthy of associating with others. 

I believe that “encounter” — the experience of meeting people in the workplace, the grocery store, the faith community, the coffee shop, the gym, the polling place, or any of the typical places that we frequent — is most important in breaking down the barriers that contribute to the perception that society is divided into “us” and “them.” Encounter can help us to realize the dignity and uniqueness of all people, to remind us that we all have more in common than in difference, and to remember that an inclusive community benefits all of us. 

So, when you’re out and about in Lawrence or elsewhere, enjoy the opportunity to encounter people with all kinds of disabilities going about their daily business, just as you are. And I hope that you will support full participation of all citizens in the community by welcoming disabled people into all the places that you go. Creating an inclusive community that supports the participation of all members is the responsibility of all. 

About the writer<br>
About the writer

Dot Nary is a disability activist, retired KU researcher, and educator. She grew up on the east coast and still misses the ocean but delights in the beauty of the prairie. She loves living in Lawrence and works to make it a community that is equitable, accessible and welcoming to all. Read more of her columns for The Lawrence Times at this link.

Note: This post has been corrected from a previous version.

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