ELIZABETH — In 1987, President Ronald Reagan designated March as Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month as a way to recognize the contributions of Americans who, because of their various disabilities, had been previously ignored, shuttered away in institutions, and denied full inclusion in their communities.

"Oftentimes, people with disabilities are not given a voice," Joanne Oppelt, assistant executive director for business development at New Jersey-based Community Access Unlimited, said. "They're shunted into the corner and they're not given a voice, and that's really sad."

The idea of a developmental disability, though, cannot be treated as an umbrella term because not everyone receives the same care and treatment. Oppelt said these disabilities run the gamut from spina bifida to brain injuries to intellectual and mental health challenges — anything that occurs before age 22, and is chronic and long-lasting.

It's been Oppelt's experience, particularly in finding employment for those with disabilities, that they may take a while to train on doing a task for a job, but once they learn it, they do it well and are loyal. In fact, she said workers without disabilities can often approach their tasks less safely and can be absent more often.

Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, then, is about celebrating not only employment, but integration. It's also, Oppelt said, a means of reducing discrimination against the disabled — getting rid of the mentality of "that person over there."

"A, they have a lot to say, and they have a lot to say that's worth listening to," she said. "And B, they really, really, really appreciate somebody actually treating them as a person rather than an object."

Advocacy is a major component of what Oppelt and CAU do, through their Helping Hands group and the New American Movement of People with Disabilities, which help maintain a community presence by spearheading letter-writing campaigns, talking to legislators, and speaking at conferences.

For more on what CAU does to develop a unique menu of services for each individual they help, visit caunj.org or contact Oppelt at 908-354-3040, ext. 4209.

Patrick Lavery produces "New Jersey's First News" and is New Jersey 101.5's morning drive breaking news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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