The Pitt News

Disability advocates speak at Pitt about inclusion

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Members of L'Arche USA spoke about strengthening community at an event Wednesday afternoon. Meghan Sunners | Senior Staff Photographer

Members of L'Arche USA spoke about strengthening community at an event Wednesday afternoon. Meghan Sunners | Senior Staff Photographer

Members of L'Arche USA spoke about strengthening community at an event Wednesday afternoon. Meghan Sunners | Senior Staff Photographer

By Rebecca Peters / For The Pitt News

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The whole room went silent after Sister Anita Maroun asked a crowd of Pitt students and community members how many people with disabilities are needed to change a lightbulb.

“One person to change it and five able-bodied persons to tell them they’re an inspiration,” Maroun joked.

Maroun talked about a picture of a runner with a prosthetic leg, captioned, “If he can do it, you can do it.”.She called it inspiration porn for people who are able bodied. It’s pictures like these, she said, that exclude people with disabilities from society.

“They’re just doing day-to-day things, like making dinner, washing dishes and laughing,” she said.

Maroun came to Pitt to speak about expanding inclusion in social, academic and work settings as a representative for L’Arche USA — an organization that provides homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50 million Americans have a disability. L’Arche Erie, the first and largest L’Arche community in the United States, was founded in 1972 by Reverend George Strohmeyer and Sister Barbara Karsznia of the Order of Saint Benedict.

Maroun, the eastern U.S. regional coordinator for L’Arche USA, and other representatives from the organization spoke Wednesday afternoon in the University Club as part of the Thornburgh Family Lecture Series on Disability Law and Policy, an annual lecture rooted in the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy.

Clifford Rounds connected with the L’Arche Erie community in 2014 while living in a senior living home after a drastic decline in his health due to diabetes, kidney failure and vision loss. Amanda Horton, a seven-year L’Arche Erie assistant, helped Rounds tell his story.

“L’Arche gave me family. Without it, I would probably be dead,” Rounds said.

Richard Hauser, a member of L’Arche Erie, sings his praises of the community. As part of the presentation, Hauser sang a song for the crowd about fulfilling God’s will in every country.

“This is my home. The country where my heart is. Other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine,” Hauser sang.

Steve Washek, the deputy director of L’Arche USA, accompanied Hauser to the podium.

“Richard has as much to teach me as I have to teach Richard,” Washek said.

Throughout her speech, Maroun focused on her desire to see legislators expand the Americans with Disabilities Act to focus not only on legally eliminating discrimination but also encouraging inclusion.

Former President George H. W. Bush enacted the ADA in July 1990 to prohibit federally funded institutions from discriminating against people with disabilities in their hiring and building processes, among other things.

But Maroun said there is still room for the ADA to expand, listing four additional categories that could be more inclusive — legal funding, public policy, society and religious institutions.

As of now, government funding is limited depending on characterization of organizations, such as for “group homes.” Maroun said she would like to see more funds going toward integrative community programs for people with and without intellectual disabilities.

Much of the ADA public policy focuses on physical inclusion, such as access to schools, restaurants and bathrooms. But the ultimate criteria for social inclusion is success, Maroun said, which is defined as the person’s ability to be employed and live by themselves.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, among the 29.4 million people with disabilities of working age, 12.1 million are employed. According to Maroun, public policy can be more inclusive by defining success as what persons with intellectual disabilities are able to accomplish based on the available resources.

“We are a nation constitutionally committed to recognizing the value and equality of each person,” she said.

Vicki Washek, a community leader for L’Arche Erie, said that it is possible to recognize this value and equality daily. Growing up with her uncle Bob, who had an intellectual disability, Washek said including people with disabilities quickly became a normal routine.

“When students from local schools in Erie make personal connections and friendships, inclusion becomes second nature,” she said. “They learn to focus more on the person, not the disability.”

While working at L’Arche Erie, Washek integrated patients who were previously committed at Polk Center, a mental hospital in Pennsylvania, into the community in Erie. Bob would have gone to that hospital if he hadn’t moved in with Washek’s family.

Since Maroun was speaking to a group of mostly doctors and students from Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, she focused on how those in the medical field can teach people to see the human being before the disability.

“In the medical field, you’re not treating the disability, you’re treating the person,” Maroun said. “[Inclusion is] understanding that when you see a patient with a disability, you may not be able to keep your 10-minute limit per patient.”

Sara Munera, a master’s student in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, attended the lecture so she could bring what she learned back to Colombia, where she is from. She plans on returning after receiving her master’s to “improve access to assistive technologies for people with disabilities,” she said.

“It’s interesting to hear thoughts about how society influences our thoughts about people with disabilities,” Munera, 26, said.

L’Arche Erie, the only L’Arche community in Pennsylvania, houses 24 core members in eight homes and one apartment.

In these homes, strangers become family, according to Maroun.

“What is human in me meets what is human in you. What is infinite in me meets what is infinite in you. In that meeting, there’s something that’s reborn. It is a sense of humanity,” Maroun said.

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Disability advocates speak at Pitt about inclusion