As Molly Mayo, a special education teacher, reflected on her classroom she could not help but wonder if there was a better way to serve people with developmental disabilities. Working as the Assistant Director for the Mount Hood Kiwanis Camp and as a special education teacher with Portland Public Schools, the disparities in the two systems were glaring.
In the school system, a lack of funding for public school disability programs, a lack of support for special education teachers, and a lack of understanding that creating the proper environment for kids with disabilities and differences is critical for a student to thrive, all led to a disjointed setting. “Mental health was going downward, it was hugely stressful [for students and staff] and people were at each other’s throats,” Mayo said.
Because of her work with the Mount Hood Kiwanis Camp, Mayo knew that alternative approaches were not only possible, but were highly successful. The camp system created a setting that “was celebratory, life affirming, collaborative, and healthy” and resulted in the participants feeling vibrant, integrated and capable of exceeding what society expected. And, of course, this setting was invigorating for staff who, like Mayo, worked in both the camp and school settings.
Mayo concluded that the problem with how the school system navigated special education programs was systemic. “Obviously the problem with this is the system and not any of the people involved.” Mayo bravely began to ponder her own life path, asking herself “do I really want to spend my life and my career in that system or in an alternative which clearly is possible.”
In 2007, Mayo made a leap of faith and began On-the-Move, an organization dedicated to serving adults with diagnosed developmental disabilities and differences. With her knowledge of the two systems serving people with disabilities, Mayo credits On-the-Move’s collaborative, vibrant approach to the Mount Hood Kiwanis Camp. “I loved it up there. It was so celebratory, exciting, healthy and great.” The On-the-Move programs and services are infused with the fun, integrating spirit of the Mount Hood Kiwanis Camp.
Since its inception, “On-the-Move groups have so far done an estimated 15,000 hours of community service work in the past 5 years, or the equivalent of about 7 years of full time work collectively.” As the name reveals, On-the-Move and its current 11-person staff is highly active in the community – groups have spent about 30,000 hours in the community performing a myriad of integrating activities.
“Most programs serving individuals with disabilities are site-based programs where activities occur each day at a specific location – On-the-Move is a community-based program where we are active citizens participating in shaping our local culture” (onthemoveonline.org).
Most funding for On-the Move comes from a combination of state and federal money under the Oregon Brokerage System. On-the-Move is a contractor for this system and receives funds (mostly Medicaid with matching state funds) to support adults with diagnosed developmental disabilities. These funds are used to help participants achieve certain goals such as exploring the community, working on social skills, meeting new friends and becoming active and healthy in the community. While the state brokerage system uses the term “inclusion” when referring to services, On-the-Move “use[s] the word integration very specifically because the jargon in the field is: inclusion of somebody with a difference into society. Integration is a multidirectional exchange,” Mayo explained.
The state and federal money On-the-Move receives is earmarked for community inclusion programs and is not permitted to be used for other services such as reading programs. In an effort to expand services to participants, On-the-Move began reading and multi-cultural enrichment classes with the help of grants from Meyer Memorial Trust and SE Uplift’s Neighborhood Small Grants Program. These classes aim to combat the social isolation and discrimination experienced by adults with disabilities by providing courses that forge community, self-esteem, cultural understanding and improved education.
The 2012 SE Uplift Neighborhood Small Grant award of $5,000 helped two new On-the-Move programs: the reading program and a program called Socializing Colorfully that hosts a monthly meeting for people of color with diagnosed developmental disabilities. Over the past year, On-the-Move has noticed that participation in Socializing Colorfully has been significantly lower than the reading program even though it is equally as important. Mayo explained that “research shows that people of color have a harder time accessing services due to cultural barriers, [among] other reasons. Having a disability is so isolating in our current society that to be of non-white ethnicity in addition [to having a developmental disability] creates a more complicated, more isolated situation.” In an effort to increase participation, On-the-Move will soon start special events for Socializing Colorfully. Both programs aim to not only connect adults with disabilities but also provide an opportunity for families to support each other.
On-the-Move aligns all services, programs and daily activities with its remarkable three-part mission:
1. To assist adults with developmental disabilities in accessing meaningful, healthful, and environmentally responsible activities in our community.
On-the-Move takes a unique and highly accountable approach to environmental responsibility. A focus on sustainability offers On-the-Move participants opportunities to make choices that are environmentally-minded and healthy, a rather difficult task given that cultural norms often encourage people with differences and disabilities to make unhealthy choices as a means for fitting in. Many other organizations serving adults with developmental disabilities create a sense of societal inclusion by visiting a fast food chain to work on social skills or by permitting a participant to purchase an unhealthful snack or soda from a vending machine as a reward for good behavior.
In an effort to double the learning, On-the-Move takes a more healthful approach by providing consistent, daily lessons about eating well, recycling, and making purchasing choices that protect the environment. The organization’s community integration (inclusion) programs take participants to local parks, on long walks, and to volunteer with the Oregon Food Bank’s Learning Gardens.
The dedication to sustainability of On-the-Move has been recognized by its being placed for two consecutive years on the 100 Best Green Companies to Work For in Oregon and it was also recently awarded the Silver level with Sustainability at Work.
On-the-Move is unique among similar organizations serving adults with developmental disabilities by providing the opportunity for participants to experience the rewards of altruism by engaging in sustainability behaviors. “We tell everyone, staff and participants, this might be a different choice than you are able to make at home, but as an organization we have the opportunity to buy the organic can of beans or buy in bulk from the co-op,” said Mayo.
2. To enrich the social fabric of our community through fuller participation of individuals with differences.
Because On-the-Move’s programs are integrative, the community has the opportunity to shift the current paradigm on how to interact and collaborate with adults with developmental disabilities. By “helping this population get out and about in the community,” the community at large has the opportunity to expand, grow and learn about people with developmental disabilities, Mayo said.
3. To increase social appreciation for human differences through modeling the celebration of diversity.
It has become the norm that people with developmental disabilities are marginalized. Mayo explained that these programs “model for others how to be inclusive” by sharing the community space with participants in the program. By the nature of the On-the-Move program, “we are out there training and exposing the community to people with differences.”
On-the-Move is resetting the course for people with developmental disabilities by providing opportunities that encourage clients to meet their full potential. As well, the community gains the remarkable opportunity to release its limiting notions of people with developmental disabilities and differences.
Learn more about how you can support On-the-Move or donate to sustain non-brokerage programs: On-the-Move, 4187 SE Division Street, Portland, OR 97202.
By: Blythe Pavlik