Star Choices, Inc. is a non-profit organization that provides community based support to people with a disabilities.
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES…
by Ruth Stevens
In 1954, people experiencing disabilities had few if any resources for support in Middle Georgia. Children identified with a disability at birth seldom left the hospital with their parents. Instead of a homecoming experienced by other newborns, the infant with a disability frequently left for an institutional placement the same day the child’s mother was discharged from the hospital. Parents who were brave enough to go against doctor’s orders and take their little one home faced mountains of obstacles from disapproving family members to an un accepting community. People with disabilities were literally and figuratively closeted away, unseen and ignored.
Yet, in the face of great obstacles, emerged a group of parents who defied tradition, doctor’s orders, family disapproval and community ignorance to do their best to raise their children who had disabilities in the community, included in their families and their lives. These parents, none of whom knew the other existed, eventually reached out and sought assistance from one nonjudgmental source – the Psychology Department of Mercer University and Dr. James Murdock. There they were welcomed and supported by people who knew for a fact that the families were not alone in their needs. The professionals at Mercer knew several families, and decided it was about time the families had an opportunity to know each other. In 1954, that is exactly what happened.
Out of this meeting of families grew the Macon Association for Retarded Children. This organization eventually sponsored programs ranging from Timmy Turtle Nursery and The High Hope School to The MARC Workshop. The 1950’s were a time of racial segregation, so with members of the African American Community experiencing the same needs, a group of parents and community volunteers spearheaded the development of the Lucky Duck Nursery to support Black families with disabled children. Then, in the 1960’and 1970’s, came the Kennedy family and a Senator, who eventually became Vice President, named Hubert Humphrey, who shined a light on people with disabilities. It became accepted to have a family member with a disability. Funding of services for people with disabilities, so long neglected by federal state and local governments, became the thing to do, and supports for people with disabilities began evolving from small, independent attempts to actual agencies mandated to serve the community. The Macon ARC split itself in the early 1970’s to provided for the acceptance of federal funding for services and The Bibb County Training Center for the Developmentally Disabled, Inc. was born.
The first attempts to provide services were segregated programs of racially diverse children and adults with disabilities. These programs, though well meaning attempts, grouped people with disabilities together and sheltered them and the community from each other’s gifts. A child with a disability could grow to adulthood and never participate in a single activity with a person who had no disability, other than members of the child’s immediate family. There were special preschool programs, special education in schools, special church programs, special Boy and Girl Scout Troops, special clubs and other groups requiring a disability to belong. In a sense the closet was still present, just bigger.
The 1980’s brought change to the service delivery system. It had long been observed that if people with socially deviant behaviors were grouped together, they learned from one another and became more likely to display inappropriate behaviors. Being inappropriate in that environment became the norm. Different professionals began to flip that concept on its head and ask, “What if a person with a disability were exposed to typical people, in typical environments, doing typical things? Would not “typical” then become the norm?” Why not just call this process “Normalization”? And we did it.
1985 brought John Chandler to Macon as Director and normalization to the program. The name was changed to Star Choices, Inc. The mission of the program became one of inclusion and choice for people with disabilities. Children left the safe environment of the Children’s Program and ventured into day care settings with their typical peers. The kids who couldn’t talk soon were standing up for themselves, saying “It’s MINE” just like everyone else and learning to participate in the group from the inside out, instead of the outside looking in. Adults left the shelter of the Workshop and began to get real jobs instead of pretend work.
Now people work at the neighborhood grocery, restaurants, car dealerships, cleaning services and many other places typical people in the community work. People with disabilities sing in their church choirs, take art lessons, volunteer with other service agencies and share their gifts with their community. People with disabilities now live in their own homes. Some have purchased their own houses, and each person receives the amount and type of supports they need to build successful lives in their community. People have married and have their own jobs, homes and families. People with disabilities have the opportunities available to anyone. They are seen as people first, not as disabled people. The closet is now open and empty in Middle Georgia.