Plunging into the problems of the retarded and emerging an expert

Q & A

August 09, 1994|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Sun Staff Writer

Jane Browning's life is taken up with the problems of mental retardation. She has a 11-year-old son with Down syndrome, works in a statewide program that serves the retarded and their families and recently was named to a commission advising the Clinton administration on the subject.

The 15-member presidential advisory committee will make recommendations to President Clinton and Health and Human Services Director Donna E. Shalala.

The appointment also gives Mrs. Browning the chance to spend time with old friends -- Bill and Hillary Clinton. She became friends with the nation's first couple during the 12 years she lived four blocks from the governor's mansion in Little Rock, Ark. Mrs. Browning was also a precinct captain in Bill Clinton's campaign in the 1982 and 1984 gubernatorial campaigns -- the precinct where the Clintons lived.

Mrs. Browning, who lives in Severna Park, is the statewide director of community services for the Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC). She began volunteering with the organization in Denver 22 years ago. Back then, she was doing a favor for friends rehabilitating group housing for ARC. Mrs. Browning, 45, since has become an expert on mental retardation, and, perhaps more important, how to work the system to get grants and programs moving.

Q: Not all that many years ago, mental retardation was something most people didn't want to think about. But in the past decade or more, that seems not to be the case, at least in this country. What's changed?

A: The most important change has taken place in society. People with mental disabilities are no longer locked away or hidden from sight.

Mainstreaming children with disabilities into regular schools is another gain.

The television series "Life Goes On" was very exciting to us. I remember people saying, "We've gone Hollywood." Someone with Down syndrome [actor Chris Burke, cast as Corky] played a leading role. The show also showed how a ordinary family with a child with disabilities coped with day-to-day life.

And I remember one of the fast food chains doing a long, long, six- or eight-month series of commercials that focused on employees with some type of disability. That was very, very visible.

The new movie, "Forrest Gump," is very good. Tom Hanks captures the way someone with a borderline IQ would act. I know the reviews are good, but I'm waiting for more people to see the film, to see the effect on the average person.

Q: What do you think is the next step for people with mental disabilities? Are there other barriers?

A: More than 7,000 Marylanders are on a waiting list for services of all descriptions, so there is a lot of work to do.

Aging parents are worried about the future of their mentally TC retarded children. In many cases, these children are now middle-aged or older. These are children who have been supported -- with little help -- by their parents. This is one reason we need universal health care -- to care for these adults with disabilities.

Also, there are people with disabilities who need training, jobs and housing. The list goes on and on.

One goal ARC of Maryland has is to take the Americans With Disability Act to day care providers throughout the state.

A lot of parents with children with disabilities can't find day care because the providers say their staffs and buildings aren't equipped to accept them.

What we want to do is work [with] day care centers to show them practical ways to make the transition smoother.

This is so important. We need to start mainstreaming as soon as possible, both for the child and the family.

I am positive that the language of my son Paul is much clearer and that he has a larger vocabulary because he was exposed to typical children -- who were learning to talk -- from the beginning.

Any young child who is delayed in speech or language will learn more when he is exposed to other young children who are also babbling because that motivates the child to learn to respond. Kids love other kids.

Q: Your resume says you received a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Texas at Dallas in 1978. But it also says you are on many committees, boards and task forces on mental retardation, among other activities. How did you become an expert on mental retardation?

A: I have learned a lot from hands-on experience, as a volunteer. I've also taken continuing education courses. I did not have a plan; I just plunged in and started taking classes.

My family has moved around because of my husband's job. [Her husband, John William Browning III, is the general manager for sales, Eastern division, Master Builders, a division of Sandoz of Switzerland.] I've learned so much by working at various ARCs -- there are 1,200 chapters nationwide. Sometimes I've worked as a volunteer, and other times I have been paid. I'm being paid in this job.

Q: What was your reaction when you learned your son had Down syndrome?

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