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Communitas changing attitudes

Among the social changes that recognize individual rights with respect to race and gender, the developmentally disabled, too, have recently earned a greater degree of tolerance and understanding.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Debra Stephenson, executive director of Communitas in Bremerton, an agency that strives to meet individual needs and correct misconceptions about Kitsap County’s developmentally disabled residents. “This has to do with a change in attitude, but also because we’re no longer locking them up and keeping them out of sight.”

She said this willingness to treat people rather than warehouse them is directly attributable to an increase in open-mindedness and tolerance.

“As we pass these teachings on to our children, conditions improve,” she said. “The last generation had more ignorance and less diversity.”

Communitas, a state-funded agency, provides direct support for about 80 people countywide. Stephenson calls them “customers” rather than a less-independent designation like “patients” or “residents.”

Of these, about half receive 24-hour care and may be housed in agency-owned facilities.

Communitas (Latin for “community”) has a $2.5 million annual budget from Washington state and employs about 80 people, mostly home healthcare workers. According to Stephenson, employees receive a “fairly intensive” continuing training program.

As per the legal definition, a developmentally disabled person has suffered some setback prior to turning 18 that limits their ability to function in society. There exist a variety of diagnoses, ranging from the mild — an inability to process certain information — to the severe.

Stephenson estimates about 400 developmentally disabled people live in Kitsap County, but an exact number is impossible to determine since many do not seek public assistance. Many have milder disabilities, hold jobs, and are in the care of their families. Communitas does not actively solicit clients; instead, they come from medical referrals.

“We first get to know the family and the individual’s capability,” Stephenson said. “We then tailor our support to these needs.”

While there is no single strategy, a general guideline is to make the customer as much a part of the community as possible. Some may be able to hold down jobs, while it may be good enough for others just to make some kind of contribution.

Stephenson said parenting a developmentally disabled child is “not what you expect when you are pregnant. But it can be as much of a joy if you just have different expectations.”

But she is quick to note that “different” does not necessarily translate into “fewer.”

Stephenson compares the attitude toward the developmentally disabled to racism.

“It originates from fear of something that you don’t understand,” she said. “I’ve seen the reaction in stores where the disabled are given a wide berth. You can see the look on their faces.”

Like those in other fields who use terms like “more able-bodied,” Stephenson has coined the less judgmental term “differently abled” to describe the agency’s customers.

“We all have disabilities,” she said. “Or you could call them ‘different abilities.’ Some people can’t work with numbers. But they have other skills. We have one customer who has an incredible sense of direction — she is like a human GPS. You put her in the car and she always knows where to go.”

In theory, matching the “human GPS” with a delivery driver could benefit everyone.

“We help people get past their fear and recognize the gifts they have,” Stephenson said. “Some of these gifts are less visible than ones that are readily displayed.”

Communitas is destined to change in the near future, if only slightly. After 10 years with the organization, the last four as director, Stephenson will take a position this month with the Washington State Housing Finance Commission in Seattle.

The Communitas board was expected to meet Thursday and name an acting director. Stephenson said she expected this action would launch an all-out public/private search for her replacement.

Communitas is located at 920 Park Avenue in Bremerton. Its information is on-line at www.communitas.org, or call (360) 377-7231.

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