Inclusion & Uplift: Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month 2024

Inclusion & Uplift: Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month 2024


By Nebeu Shimeles

March is Development Disabilities Awareness Month. Established by presidential proclamation in 1987, the campaign seeks to raise awareness about the inclusion of people with developmental disabilities, and the barriers that people with such disabilities face in connecting to the communities in which they live.

Developmental disabilities are widespread and require our urgent attention

The CDC defines developmental disabilities as “a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas” that begin “during the developmental period, may impact day-to-day functioning, and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime.” Such disabilities are much more common than publicly understood. According to the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, nearly one in six young people in the U.S. are living with one or more developmental disabilities or delays.

Urgent action is needed to support people living with developmental disabilities. A 2023 report from the World Health Organization notes that many “encounter stigmatization, prejudice, and social exclusion,” as well as “barriers in accessing health care” designed to meet their needs. The consequences of this marginalization and lack of healthcare support are tragically clear. The Child Welfare Information Gateway highlights that people living with disabilities “are four to ten times more likely to be abused” than the general population.

Arts programming benefits people with living with developmental disabilities

Engagement with arts programming has proven to be successful in supporting people living with developmental disabilities, enhancing the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions. A 2021 study in the Caspian Journal of Pediatrics demonstrated a significant reduction in anxiety levels among youth after participating in art therapy. Integrity, Inc., a nonprofit specializing in offering support services to individuals experiencing developmental disabilities notes that art programming can “enhance attention and focus, improve cognitive functioning,” and “help children develop a deeper understanding of their own emotions by providing a safe space” for expression and exploration.

Pongo has extensive experience supporting young people living with disabilities. The Child Study & Treatment Center (CSTC), one of Pongo’s flagship program sites in the Seattle area, is the only state-run psychiatric hospital for children and youth in Washington. CSTC serves children with psychological and safety needs requiring intensive support, including youth living with developmental disabilities. And over the years, Pongo has led a series of projects at shelters for the unhoused, community spaces, and similar sites, through which we’ve supported such youth.

Pongo programming supports young people in navigating living with developmental disabilities  

One such program was at YouthCare, where Pongo had the opportunity to engage a young person named “Thomas” in our poetry programming. Thomas had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and in the course of writing with Pongo, used the opportunity to process the suspicion and paranoia his illness was inspiring.

Throughout the program, Thomas wrote insightful and inspiring poems; one described his ideal community as one full of mutual support and acceptance of differences. Another described feeling confused and helpless about his mental illness, but closed on a note of compassion for himself rather than shame. With the encouragement of his mentors, Thomas triumphed over his anxiety about publicly sharing his work, proudly reading his poetry to an audience of friends, family, and program staff, during the end of program assembly. Thomas’ story exemplifies how Pongo empowers youth to change their relationship to their distress; for youth to reflect and create, rather than feel controlled by their circumstances.

Interested in getting involved with Pongo’s work? Consider becoming a poetry mentor so you can work directly with young people and support them in writing heartfelt poetry about the difficulties they experience. Alternatively, check out Pongo’s Certification program, which is designed to equip you with the tools and support to establish a healing poetry program of your own.

Whether it’s with Pongo, or the countless worthwhile organizations supporting young people’s mental and emotional well-being, the opportunities are abundant. We encourage you to get involved in meeting the needs of young people living with developmental disabilities. Visit our website to explore opportunities to join our trainings, or learn about how you can spark positive change by becoming a mentor.


Nebeu Shimeles serves as Co-Executive Director of Development & Finance at Pongo.

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