Opening the Doors

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November 3, 2003 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 30, 2007
By: sue rich, project editor
sue rich, project editor

The lives of people with mental disabilities Downtown

For many Downtowners the primary, memorable experience with someone with a mental disability -- a brain injury, mental illness and/or developmental disability (what used to be called "retarded") -- has probably been an uncomfortable interaction with a homeless person who seems a little "off" and most likely needs support services.

The media (Skyway News included) usually only mentions people with mental disabilities when there is conflict-- the police shoot a woman with a mental illness, neighborhood residents fight to prevent a group home in their community, etc. At best, those with mental disabilities are portrayed as recipients of services or programs.

Combine this with a lack of community-level interaction and an aura of mystique, even fear, can evolve. Who are these people? What are their lives like? Should I be nervous about them and about other group homes in my neighborhood?

Even if not stated publicly, such questions pop up because we live in a time of transition: years ago, hundreds of people with mental disabilities would have been institutionalized; today, they are our neighbors.

In addition to homeless shelters and hospitals, Downtown has many group homes that serve people with mental disabilities. There are several larger-scale group homes in Elliot Park and smaller ones in Loring Park.

As the name suggests, this reporting project aims simply to open some doors into the lives of people with mental disabilities -- the ones that you are less likely to encounter in your daily life, or, at least, less likely to recognize as having a mental disability.

This week, you'll meet a man who lived in a large group home in Elliot Park and moved into a more independent facility just south of Downtown. He is also involved in the burgeoning self-advocacy People First movement, which meets at the Downtown YWCA. His original Downtown home -- the largest facility exclusively for people with mental illness in the state -- is also profiled.

Many people with mental disabilities also work Downtown. Next week, you'll meet a man who works as a custodian at a government building and lives in the southwest part of the city. We'll also explore the public policy issues of integrating people with mental disabilities into the community -- retraining police, adjusting the court system, individual and taxpayer costs, and are there really any reasons to be nervous?