March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month

Many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) live with a host of challenges – everything from a shortage of suitable housing options and unemployment to poor health and a lack of connection to their community. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things even worse, which makes finding solutions now more important than ever.

This urgency will be the driving force behind National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month for Bethesda, a national nonprofit organization that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Throughout March, the organization will be advancing issues as well as innovations that can change lives.

During the month, Bethesda will also aim to bring people together virtually through high-profile concert events during the month, featuring Grammy-nominated and Dove-winning Contemporary Christian artist Crowder; Cindy Cash and Mark Alan, family members of country legend Johnny Cash; and American Idol finalist Jessica Meuse.

“COVID-19 really demonstrated that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are among the most vulnerable among us,” said Mike Thirtle, president and CEO of Bethesda. “At the same time, they and their families have shown incredible resilience and a renewed desire for lives filled with independence and potential. It is this promise for the future that motivates us to work every day on their behalf, and to make the world more inclusive and welcoming for people of all abilities.”

Special month began in 1987

Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month was proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. The proclamation called upon all Americans to provide support and opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities to reach their potential. Back then, the idea that individuals with developmental disabilities could be productive contributors in the workforce was relatively new and preconceptions had to be overcome. With the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, workplace discrimination against individuals with developmental disabilities became a legally punishable offense.

While people with disabilities have made strides over the years, there is much room for improvement. For example, the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that people with Down Syndrome, a developmental disability, are four times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and 10 times as likely to die from the illness. Incredibly, in some locations people with I/DD are pushed to the back of the line for COVID-19 treatment, which disrespects their basic dignity as human beings. Bethesda has strongly advocated for the elimination of all inequities in health care and access to holistic care that includes behavioral services provided by trained professionals.

Opportunities in housing, community

Even though many large institutions housing people with I/DD have fallen out of favor, nearly 700,000 people live in congregate settings such as group homes, intermediate care facilities and institutions, according to a disability study reported in the Harvard Political Review. Because people live in close quarters, they are especially at risk of infection during COVID-19 and similar emergencies, despite the diligent best efforts of their direct support professional staff.

Bethesda advocates for, and provides, more independent housing options for people with I/DD, recognizing their desire to become more included in their community. That is why AbleLight created AbleLight Village, a first-of-its-kind residential community in the Twin Cities that welcomes people of all abilities, including those with I/DD. Given that many people with I/DD live near the poverty level, with average earnings of an individual on Supplemental Security Income at $9,156 per year, affordability is crucial – and a key component of the AbleLight Village model. The universal design of AbleLight Village units includes accessibility features and technologies that keep residents safe and help them control their daily lives to the greatest extent possible.

“Our hope is that residents of AbleLight Village feel a strong connection to the community around them, and empowered to pursue employment, social, faith and other important opportunities,” said Thirtle. “We are looking across the country for our next AbleLight Village locations, and we are confident this model of residential community will be a game-changer that improves lives.”

Concert events

Bethesda aims to raise spirits as well as awareness during March. Even though people can’t gather in person right now, it is still possible to celebrate all that people with disabilities have accomplished. Bethesda will be extending its Better Together virtual concert series with three new events, with full details at

  • On March 1, Bethesda will feature Jessica Meuse, longtime friend of Bethesda who will be visiting AbleLight Village in Victoria, Minn. There she will be meeting and performing for residents that include people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as active adults ages 55 and up. Meuse will perform the song she wrote specifically for the people Bethesda supports, “Because You Love Me.”
  • On March 18, Cindy Cash and Mark Alan will welcome viewers to Johnny Cash’s farm outside of Nashville, Tenn., where they’ll tell stories of Johnny, sing his most popular songs, and share why they care about people with disabilities.
  • Finally, on March 25, the Better Together concert series welcomes Crowder, who will perform live from Forest Hill Church in Charlotte, N.C. The concert will showcase people Bethesda supports and look back on an exciting month of activities. Plus, viewers will have an opportunity to donate to the work Bethesda is doing for people with disabilities.

Getting involved

Everyone can do more to include all abilities. Learn more about Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month and Bethesda’s campaign, at Resources on the dedicated website include:

  • An overview to the issues, latest facts and figures, and solutions needed
  • A guide for employers interested in hiring a person with a developmental disability
  • A guide to communication – what to say about and to people with disabilities
  • Access to lawmakers for advocacy purposes
  • Inspiring stories of people with I/DD
  • And much more – check back often

Bethesda will also employ the hashtag #IncludeAllAbilities on social media and encourages everyone to use it to personally support the campaign and spread the word about the need to include.

On January 10, 2022 Bethesda Lutheran Communities became AbleLight.