The Arc focuses on changing views of disabilities

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Run Chhoeup, The Arc Achiever of the Year for 2014, polishes his basketball skills during Sports Week.

More than half a century ago, a grassroots organization took shape, made up of parents who wanted to make sure their developmentally disabled children received the right kind of education.

That’s how one of the largest nonprofits in the nation got its start. And locally, The Arc of the Pikes Peak Region continues to re-invent itself even today.

“It’s not your dad’s nonprofit,” said Craig Severa, advocacy specialist for The Arc.

While remaining true to its original mission of advocating for children in school systems, the national nonprofit is also a strong voice for developmentally disabled people in the criminal justice system.

Helping parents form Individualized Education Plans — needed for schools to provide additional educational resources to children who need it — is one way The Arc serves families. The Arc partners with parents so they do not get overwhelmed facing a group of educators with only limited resources at hand.

“We can help them ask different questions, back them up and guarantee the rights of children with disabilities,” Severa said. “It became a cottage industry for parents to make sure their kids were done right by.”

The biggest challenge the nonprofit faces across the board is the same as it was in the beginning — changing societal perspectives in relation to developmentally disabled people.

“All the old clichés people believe in just aren’t true for the most part,” he said.

It’s not easy for people with developmental disabilities. Statistics show they are among the most abused and ostracized people in society — frequently exploited by caregivers, Severa said. Among developmentally disabled adults, as many as 83 percent of females and 32 percent of males are victims of sexual assault, and 49 percent of those will experience 10 or more incidents. Members of this group age 12 and older are victims of non-fatal violent crimes at more than twice the rate of people without disabilities.

“If this happened to others [groups], people would be out in the streets,” Severa said.

The Arc’s specialists spend a great deal of effort locally to stand up for developmentally disabled people who are involved with the criminal justice system. The group works with public defenders, attorneys, judges, probation officers and others to come up with alternative sentencing options.

“We help people in the system that may not have been identified as having a developmental disability,” he said. “[About] 88 percent of them don’t appear to have a disability. District attorneys want bad guys in jail, not the people we serve.”

Severa and The Arc staff actively reach out into the community in an attempt to locate and connect with people on the street who are involved in the criminal justice system. He talks of cases where they located a person facing the system alone with a 46 IQ and no resources.

Studies show that of the first 200 DNA exonerations in the United States, 35 percent were younger than 18 and/or had a developmental disability. From that sample of wrongful convictions, 69 percent of those with development disabilities were wrongly convicted due to a false confession.

Even more telling in regard to the need for advocacy, since 1983, more than 60 people with intellectual disabilities have been executed in the U.S. based on false confessions.

Further demonstrating the need for advocacy in the criminal justice system, only half the disabled people would admit their disability upon arrest. Also, half the people with mild intellectual and developmental disabilities could not paraphrase any of the five Miranda components, detailing their rights.

It means they need a strong advocate as their cases wind through the courts.

“We like to work with the toughest cases; that’s how we measure [success],” Severa said.

It all comes back to changing the way society views people with disabilities — The Arc’s main goal. The group works hard to show the benefits of hiring and working with the people for whom they advocate.

“They show up to work and they are proud to do things that other people would find below them,” he said.