August 23, 2019

For your consideration

With the entertainment awards season now in full swing, I challenge the motion picture industry to show us a signficantly developementally disabled teen or older adult who is not just getting by, but thriving with friends, a job, and more.  The Los Angeles-based screenwriters wouldn’t have to travel far to find a non-verbal autistic teen who can’t speak orally, but can type out college-level essays on love, life and loneliness. Or the young adult with CP who is living with a roomate, working in regular employment and helping to lead davening at a local shul.

For many general movie-goers, the “special needs” film that comes to mind is “Rainman” from 1988 in which Dustin Hoffman recieved an Oscar for his role of Raymond Babbit, the older brother of Charlie Babbit played by Tom Cruise. For those of you who can’t recall the details, or never saw it, Charlie is a selfish LA hustler who has been estranged from his Dad since his teen years and when he learns that his deceased Dad left a $3 million trust fund for some guy named Raymond, Charlie makes a beeline to the Walbrook Institute in Ohio where Raymond, his previously unknown brother with autism has been living since childhood, and kidnaps him. The duo travel by car back to LA, sharing many adventures, fights and tender moments along the way. The plot is tightly focused on relationship between the two brothers, and ends with Charlie as a better human being and Raymond on a train headed back to Walbrook Institute.

But a lot has changed (mostly for the positive) since 1988. Most of the institutions exemplified by Walbrook have long been shuttered, and today adults with developmental disabilities either live in group homes, in supported independent living or are still living with their aging parents (more on that later). The shame and stigma attached to having siblings with severe disabilities has been greatly eased (take for example the Santorum kids all sporting photo buttons of the their three-year-old sister who has a rare genetic disorder, Trisomy 18). And people with disabilities are living longer than ever, thanks to medical advances.

If Hollywood can remake such classics as King Kong, The Fly and Casino Royale, why not do the same type of treatment for Rainman, in which the older relative with development disabilities (DD) is living independently and successfully?

PS I have started a part-time position with Bet Tzedek Legal Services as Transitions Coordinator, a new, three-year grant-funded initiative by the UniHealth Foundation which will provide coordinated, holistic services to middle-aged adults with developmental disabilities who are entering older adulthood. Currently, 84% of DD families served by Bet Tzedek are being cared for their parents, and 77% of caregivers are over the age of 50.