Why I Support The Arc of the United States: Autism Acceptance and Inclusion in Action

By: Nicole Jorwic, Chris’ Sister, Director of Rights Policy, The Arc of the United States

Nicole and Chris JorwicMy home state of Illinois still has seven state-run institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) open. In 2018, 37 states still have institutions where people with I/DD live institutional lives away from their families and communities. Some may recall the horrible investigative reports that showed the terrible conditions in institutions, but fail to realize that they still exist — and that state and federal government dollars are still funding them. The Arc of the United States was founded by families like mine trying to eliminate the need for those institutions, and to get their family members with disabilities back home and included in their communities. While we have come a long way, there is still much to do from state capitals to DC.

The families that started The Arc movement were the examples that my parents emulated when they fought to ensure that my brother Chris, who had been diagnosed with autism, was the first student with the diagnosis included in our school district in the early 90’s. The self-advocates — the beating heart of The Arc — are the ones who my brother is following in the footsteps of when he advocates in our state capital for better wages for Direct Support Professionals, or presents at local school districts about how to better support students with autism. The policy staff of The Arc of the United States, who I am honored to call colleagues, have been fighting this fight for decades — some since before my brother was even born.

The legacy of The Arc of the United States was just one part of the reason I was glad to join the team as Director of Rights Policy almost three years ago. But more than that, it was about being a part of a movement that was bigger than any one person, family, or diagnosis. Since January of 2017, I have truly seen the power of that movement. This past year has been a whirlwind. I stood in awe at every rally, event, presentation, hearing and protest, at those who were willing to put their bodies on the line —  screaming, shouting, and sharing their most personal stories about why Medicaid matters in their lives and the lives of their loved ones. With my brother’s permission to share his story, I was sometimes part of that large chorus that ultimately was able to stave off the attacks last fall and SAVE MEDICAID… for now.

The “for now” part is what keeps me up at night. As a family member and advocate, it is also why it is more important than ever that we grow the movement to ensure that the general public understands why inclusion and acceptance matters, and that they join the fight to ensure the progress that we have made in the disability community is not stalled by conversations of “cost savings” and “reductions.” We have to talk about the fact that institutions remain open, and how those dollars would be better spent in the community. We have to educate the general public about what Medicaid is and does. On the policy level, we have to talk to state and federal legislators about the fact that the Federal Medicaid law which we fought so hard to save needs a face lift. Right now, services in institutions, nursing homes, and other more segregated settings are mandatory — while home and community-based services (HCBS) are optional under the law. So, all those billions of dollars of cuts would have cut those community services — while those seven institutions in my home state of Illinois would have stayed open.

These are complex issues, but the basic fact remains that everybody benefits from people with disabilities being part of the fabric of their communities. That doesn’t come by keeping people locked away in institutions, or segregated into different classrooms. It comes through conversation, inclusion, and acceptance that we are all better together.

Since it is also Autism Acceptance month, I also want to talk about my brother Chris and why inclusion and acceptance matters in our lives. You see, it is my brother’s voice that I hear during every tense Capitol Hill meeting, frustrating debate, and late night in the office. This is a little ironic since my brother doesn’t use his voice to speak. Chris types to communicate, and this really only started when he was 21 years old — almost 20 years after he lost his speaking voice. At the time when he started sharing the “20 years of observations and opinions,” my grandpa asked him how he had learned to read and write. And Chris answered with his signature sarcasm, that he “learned to read in his classroom like everyone else”. That is why inclusion matters, that is why acceptance goes light-years beyond awareness. If my parents — like all the parents who started The Arc — hadn’t insisted that Chris be included with his peers, who knows if he would have ever found his ability to communicate. That would have been a loss to our family, our community, and the world.

Chris always says it better than I can. Here is something he wrote: “Every voice matters and deserves to be heard. I would like to say that autism is not a tragedy or a disaster, it is a challenge and I am lucky to have a family that is up to it. I would be happy to talk to political leaders about how they spend our money and why they should talk to leaders like me, who have the experience and history to understand where the money and resources should go and what awareness and acceptance really looks like. And to my brothers and sisters in autism, who have families who see only your diagnosis, I fight for you.”

Chris and I are fighting, and we hope you join our movement today, so that we can continue the fight that started The Arc of the United States over 65 years ago — the fight for acceptance and inclusion in all areas of life for people with disabilities.

My evolving relationship with my sister with Angelman syndrome

By Amberley Romo

It’s now been almost five years since I first wrote about future planning. I was 22, and living in Washington, DC — 1,300 miles away from my family in Dallas.

At the time, my sister Caroline was 18. We were both entering new phases of our lives. I was fresh out of college, and she had just reached legal adulthood. (Her birthday milestones honestly were always more striking to me than my own). Caroline was born with a rare neuro-genetic disorder called Angelman syndrome. The prevalence of AS is estimated to be somewhere between 1/12,000 and 1/24,000.

I was in third grade when we finally discovered my sister’s diagnosis. I know, because my mom tells the story of how I went to school, and told my third grade teacher that I was worried about how I would take care of Caroline when something happened to our parents.

Years later, when my parents took our family out to dinner to celebrate my high school graduation, I have a perfect memory of sitting at the table feeling deeply guilty, and near tears. I was soon to move to DC for college. At the table, my parents expressed how important they thought it was that I go. When I later moved away to college, it was deeply unsettling for about a semester. Everything I had to do every day suddenly only revolved around, well, me.

The years passed, and I thrived in DC. I love that city. It’s my home away from home. But I felt those tugs. Sometimes the feeling was quiet, sometimes it was loud; but it was there. Feeling too far away, feeling too selfish. Feeling the desire to be a present fixture in the lives of my family members — to be a more active part of Caroline’s care network.

I’m now almost 28; she is almost 24. I lived in DC for eight years. Two years ago, I moved back to Texas. For one of those years, I lived in Dallas. It’s hard to explain the internal battle between feelings of obligation and not knowing with any certainty what you really want, personally. But you know what I’m talking about. It’s part of the human experience. It has nothing specifically to do with having a sibling with disabilities. It’s a universal experience. This is just a particularly salient part of how I experience this struggle. None of us can know if we’re making the right choices; We just do what we can, and keep moving forward.

What I can say with certainty is that living in closer proximity to my sister deepened our connection considerably. When living further away, I could still say hi to her on the phone. (Or like when she somehow figured out how to FaceTime with me while I was at work and she was in class).

Amberley and Caroline

But living back home, she would spend the night over at my apartment. We’d make dinner, and watch The Great British Baking Show. She loves to watch my pet rabbits run around. I got back in sync with her nonverbal cues, and she got back in sync with my micro-movements. (I swear to you she can tell when you’ve had a thought, and haven’t even said anything yet — her emotional intelligence is through the roof). It’s these subtleties that were difficult — near impossible, even — to maintain, in a long-distance relationship with her.

Amberley and Caroline

There’s no right decision for me, or for other siblings. But I can say for certain that I don’t regret moving back to be closer.

I was reflecting on these past ten years just recently; I was doing some work in a coffee shop, and a family came in. A mom, dad, older sister and younger brother. The younger brother had Down syndrome. They were all hanging his art on the coffee shop wall. As I understand it, the sister had independently reached out to the coffee shop about featuring her brother’s work, and the other artist currently featured on the wall had volunteered to share space. As I chatted with them, and watched as they arranged his art, I had an odd sense of deja vu. Reflecting on being the sister’s age, and pondering college. (She appeared to perhaps be in high school). These thoughts can feel so isolating, but they are such a deeply shared experience. Meeting them by happenstance reminded me of that.

Growing up feels like continuously uncovering that behind the tapestry is a mess of loose ends. From chaos, comes order (or at least hindsight). When I was younger, I worried about Caroline’s future with a general sense of anxiety. Now that I’m older, I worry about increasingly complicated specifics. We have been having active planning conversations for years, and on some level, it grinds away in the back of my brain nonstop. Despite working so proactively, we still don’t feel close to having an answer, or feeling prepared.

I hope that for anyone reading this, these thoughts inspire thoughtfulness, not paralysis. I accept that we can’t ever know anything for certain. It can be overwhelming, but I fervently hope that other siblings and families don’t shy away from these conversations.

Amberley Romo is a software developer in Austin, Texas. She is part of a project to build a free, open-source, web-based communication app.