Developing Compassion and Inclusion for Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Lessons from the Chautauqua Conference

Dena Teresa

Dena Drabek and her cousin Teresa

March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, and it marks the third month into my new job as the Vice President of External Relations for Tulsa Advocates for the Rights of Citizens with Developmental Disabilities (TARC.) Last week, I attended OSU-Tulsa’s Chautauqua conference that focused on individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD.)

The Chautauqua conference brought in experts from around the country to speak about how to engage communities to foster belonging for people with I/DD. While much of the discussion revolved around how service providers, parents and the larger community can better serve those with I/DD, I reflected on how those with I/DD have served me.

Like many professionals working in the field, I/DD touches close to home with three of my cousins. They have always been a part of our holidays, summer vacations and family reunions. Until now, I had not fully recognized what an impact it made on my life to grow up around people with I/DD. The conference also put into perspective just how many people reach adulthood without interacting with individuals with I/DD at school, work, church or elsewhere. It is why we need conferences like this one.


From Dr. Erik Carter’s presentation at the Chautauqua Conference

Vanderbilt Professor of Special Education Dr. Erik Carter spoke about three Ps: the postures you adopt, the practices you pursue, and the people you engage as a way to weave people with I/DD into our communities. As he explained postures, I began to understand how growing up with cousins with I/DD influenced me. Carter says posture is the degree to which we come to see the deep and intrinsic value of people with disabilities that will influence all that we do. I started adopting these postures at a young age.

In elementary school, I participated in Invent America, a national contest designed to increase creativity and ingenuity among American elementary-school students by asking them to develop simple solutions for some of life’s ordinary problems. Students in my class developed bathtub scrubbers and double-headed toothbrushes. My cousin Teresa with I/DD inspired my invention. I wanted to find a way for her to be included in sports just like the rest of us. I knew she would never be able to swing a golf club, but she might be able to move the golf ball with her foot. With my dad’s help, we fitted a special boot with a golf putter at the toe. It won a blue ribbon in the contest, but the real prize for me was developing posture and a mindset for inclusion.

Carter presented a wealth of research during the conference, but one piece confirmed what I already knew. Early inclusion predicts later inclusion, according to longitudinal studies. At TARC, we are doing our part to help develop postures at a young age through our student inclusion initiatives that begin at the elementary level. Our People Together program is a week-long disability awareness and sensitivity training targeted at grades 2-5. People Together teaches children about various disabilities by allowing them to experience the disability through hands-on activities, interactive lessons, engaging videos and hearing from an in-person panel of individuals with I/DD.

Compassion and inclusion are two postures we should all want to develop in ourselves at any age. I have my cousins with I/DD to thank for helping me to get a jump start on it. What a gift! I am honored to now serve them and more than 60,000 Oklahomans through my work at TARC, which offers empowerment, education, support and advocacy for individuals with I/DD and their families.

 TARC is committed to ensuring a high quality of life for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families through education, empowerment, support, and advocacy. For more information, visit

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Categories: Guest Blog