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col Want to see the biggest smiles?

There are special people in your community. They have the biggest smiles. Let me introduce them to you.

If you got to know them, you would find that they live in family settings. They dream, plan, budget, go to work or school, come home and relax, go shopping, play games, go out to eat, take vacations, date, talk on the phone and attend church.

These special people are loyal and dependable workers. They do the best possible job every day. They thrive with recognition. They are good with their hands and enjoy crafts and other acts of artistic expression.

If you got to know them, you would like them. They enjoy meeting people and make friends easily. They are probably more socially active than you are. They listen to music and love to sing and dance. They are style-conscious.

If you see them at concerts, street fairs, picnics, county fairs, at the park, on camping trips or at a fireworks show, they brim with excitement. They love vacations and seeing the sights.

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Holidays and birthdays are special. Each holiday has meaning. They celebrate with all the family traditions -- big meals, deserts, gifts, and decorations. They know how to enjoy a party.

If you got to know them you would learn from them. What would you learn? To them just "being" is an adventure. Every day is an adventure. Their energy and excitement is contagious. When they see you they are elated. They share love freely.

They live life at a slower pace. They stop and smell the roses. They pause to greet and meet people. They take leisurely walks. They go with the flow. They have a wonderful sense of appreciation for what is done for them and for the wonders around them. Simple things mean a lot. The big things are the small things.

Who are these people? They are people with developmental disabilities. They bring unique talents, personalities and value to the community.

The people who already know them well are those who work with them, serve them and care for them. They are the job coaches, the residential coordinators, and case managers and support staff at community agencies.

Others privileged to know them are the health care providers in the community such as doctors, nurses, occupational and physical therapists. Add to the list dedicated teachers and educators who are gifted in meeting their educational needs.

Another group who knows them well are the volunteers -- the elderly who give generously of their time, drivers who give rides, chaperones for trips, and young college students who are companions for recreational and social events. Others who get to know them are the friendly and gracious people who work in restaurants, grocery stores, retail stores, movie theaters, and in public transportation.

What is the community responsibility? Professionals in the field of disabilities believe that quality of life is enhanced when people with disabilities set goals for themselves and work toward them. People with challenging disabilities have a right not only to make choices and to take risks, but also to take responsibility for their actions. Just like ourselves, they dream their own dreams and strive for what is important and fulfilling to them. They need help from service providers and from the community.

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These professionals would love to see communities reach out to embrace these people as they would their own child or relative. They want us to know how much like ourselves people with disabilities are and to overcome any fears we may have of meeting and interacting with them.

More job sites are needed. More employers are needed so we can benefit from the talents these people offer. More volunteers of any age are needed to provide supportive services. More public support is needed for special fund raising projects and government funding to sustain these special people in the community. More churches can offer a welcoming hand and find a place for them in their congregations.

The disabled need to be treated with respect and dignity. They belong. They are a part of the community. They need to feel they belong. It is up to all of us to be willing to engage them and give them that feeling.

What is our opportunity? Most of all, the professionals who interact with people with disabilities on a daily basis want the public to know what delight and satisfaction is possible when these relationships develop. If you want to see the biggest smiles, be willing to meet, greet and get involved with people who have disabilities. Your attitude of friendliness and acceptance will gladden your own soul as well as brighten another's day.

Special thanks to Barbara Grabar, corporate support, and the staff at Fraser Ltd. in Fargo, N.D., for introducing me to a part of the community I don't know well enough.

For more information on caregiving and disabilities, you can visit Val Farmer's web site at www.valfarmer.com

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist with MeritCare in Fargo, North Dakota. He specializes in rural mental health and family business consultation.

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