In Touch with the Mentally Retarded HOWARD COUNTY

April 28, 1993

The past few decades have seen a good deal of consciousness-raising about illnesses and defects that once mystified and even frightened much of society. And yet many able-bodied people are still made uneasy by certain of these disabilities -- mental retardation, for one.

Earlier this month, the Columbia Council approved a program that should help bridge the gap between retarded citizens and the rest of the community. This action, for which the council is to be commended, is a small but important step toward erasing some of the remaining misconceptions about retardation. Congratulations to the Columbia Association, too, for sponsoring the project.

The greatest credit, however, belongs to officials of the Howard County Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC), who devised the program with their clients in mind. The aim of the program is to send supervised groups of six to eight ARC clients on regular visits to shopping malls, health clubs and recreational facilities in town. Some might also take community service jobs, earning wages or credit toward membership at facilities operated by the Columbia Association.

As one ARC official says of the program, "We're anticipating it will give [the clients] an opportunity to form some relationships, the same way you and I would. They can broaden their horizons, show what contributions they can make to the community and share a life."

Sharing their lives is, in fact, how they might best contribute to the community. The clients will probably be the main beneficiaries of this endeavor, but the citizens with whom they make contact should gain something as well -- better understanding of mental retardation and the people who have it, and of some of the limits it places on them and some limits it doesn't place on them.

Will the clients be embraced at each of their stops? That might be hoping for too much. If they aren't, it couldn't be blamed on the local village managers, business owners and others who have pledged facilities, materials and their general support to the project.

Still, even ARC program manager Andrea Strassman admits to some nervousness. "It's kind of scary," she says, but "if we fall down, we'll. . . try again. We're going to work on it until it works."

lTC

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