On His Own Terms

Ricardo ThorntonRicardo Thornton always had big hopes and dreams. But as is too often the case with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), they seemed almost impossible to achieve. Fourteen years of Ricardo’s childhood was spent in the confines of Forest Haven in Laurel, Maryland. Forest Haven (closed in 1991) was the District of Columbia’s public institution for children and adults with a variety of mental, intellectual, and developmental disabilities that had a dark history of abuse of residents and below standard conditions. His sister and brother were also residents and, sadly, his sister died there, never experiencing a full life outside of the institution.

Ricardo was determined that his life would have a different outcome, but leaving the institution was just the beginning of his struggle. Ricardo took his first step by landing a job at the Martin Luther King Library, where he has worked for more than 35 years. Donna, a friend and fellow former resident of Forest Haven, got a job nearby at Walter Reed Medical Center. Donna soon got her own apartment and Ricardo’s weekly visits to her blossomed into romance.

For most, this would not be extraordinary, but at that time people with I/DD were rarely encouraged to live independently and certainly not to get married. Unlike The Arc, most developmental disabilities agencies, caregivers and even family members did not believe that people with I/DD could be employed, let alone live independently. Fewer still believed that they could have mature, intimate relationships.

Ricardo & Donna's weddingRicardo and Donna forged the way, but the journey wasn’t easy. While other couples only need to fill out basic information for a marriage license, Ricardo and Donna were told that it was illegal for people with I/DD to get married in D.C.! With support from The Arc of D.C. and other disability rights organizations, and through the couple’s own sheer determination, Ricardo and Donna eventually realized their dream of being together.

Life progressed, and like many newlyweds they wrestled with the question of parenthood, something their friends and medical personnel advised against. But, eventually they had a baby boy, who is now a successful 25-year-old with a wife and daughter of his own.

Now, Ricardo is one of The Arc’s most well-known self-advocates – living life on his own terms and inspiring others with I/DD. He shares his life story with audiences across the country, pointing out that making his hopes and dreams a reality required determination and the right amount of help, guidance and resources. His inspirational story has even been made into a movie called Profoundly Normal.

“I’ve seen people with severe disabilities who have grown and accomplished great things given the right support,” he testified before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP).

The Arc is proud to have been able to help Ricardo achieve his goals for more than 30 years. The Arc supports individuals with I/DD in communities nationwide through a national network of chapters. In many cases, what people like Ricardo hope and dream for is what we often take for granted – from securing a job and getting married to having a child and living in the community of their choice on their own terms. We continue to advocate on behalf of the thousands of people with I/DD who are still living in state run institutions. With the tireless efforts of The Arc of Alabama, Alabama became the first state in the southeast to no longer operate large public institutions, and in December 2014, Illinois will have closed 4 out of the 5 of its state run institutions.

Your support allows The Arc to continue its important work.  You can help people like Ricardo and Donna live life on their own terms with your donation today.