By Renita Manley-Garrett on
Clay Aiken will be honored at this weekend’s New Horizons Havana Nights Gala in Burbank, and talked with Look To The Stars about what the cause means to him.
Congratulations on receiving the Celebrity Advocate Award from New Horizons! How will this honor continue to propel your advocacy for people with developmental disabilities?
The Advocate Award highlights to an expanded audience the work that we have been doing at the National Inclusion Project. The inclusion of individuals with disabilities in all activities is the right thing to do and I appreciate their recognition of my involvement and the success we are achieving.
You are a staunch supporter of people with developmental disabilities, you are also the founder of the National Inclusion Project. How was your passion for this cause born?
During high school and college years I had the opportunity to work with summer camp programs at my local YMCA. As I worked with kids and could see the fun that they had and the friendships formed I noticed that we had a special camp for individuals with disabilities. I challenged this separation and asked why not include everyone together? The simple answer at the time was that we did not know how and that it would not work. I found the answers unacceptable and knew at that time I wanted to make a difference and include all kids. This experience was a key factor in my decision to major in special education.
The National Inclusion Project’s initiative “Let’s All Play” is widely used across the nation. Congratulations on that! What makes this research based initiative unique? How is it changing lives and the perceptions of individuals with developmental disabilities?
The uniqueness comes in the fact that we establish true partnership with organizations around the country. We don’t just write a check and we don’t just do a one-time training. We work closely with community organizations to give them the best possible resources so that they can successfully include individuals into their fantastic programs.
We start with the mindset and beliefs that everyone can make a friend, everyone can participate, and everyone can be successful and then we equip professionals with best practices that make the implementation of those beliefs possible.
The results have been overwhelmingly positive as entire organizations have seen their cultures change toward inclusion.
You were once a special education teacher and you served on the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. What are some legislative changes you’d like to see involving children and adults who have developmental disabilities?
ADA is celebrating 25 years this year. While being a landmark in legislation and setting the stage for some progress over the last several decades in this area, I think most understand that legislation can only go so far because you can’t force heart or culture change simply through a new law. I believe that we need to continue to educate leaders, teachers, parents, everyone about different abilities and how inclusion benefits society. Our “Let’s ALL Play” model has been implemented in over 120 programs across the country since 2008 and we see kids of all abilities participating and making friends.
Viewers are starting to see an increase in the amount of people with developmental disabilities in television commercials, sitcoms, and on the big screens. What are your thoughts on this increased inclusion?
It is overdue – all elements of media should reflect society and respect the value of individuals.
What more can be done to decrease the gap between these individuals and the world?
As society we owe everyone the opportunity to be included in life’s activities. Getting people off the sidelines, playing together, working together, we learn about differences and likeness. Participating together we will remove stigmas and friendships will be formed benefitting all for a lifetime. Together we are better!
What should your fans and people in general understand about people with developmental disabilities?
Take the opportunity to get to know someone with different abilities, your personal experience will be speak for itself. Hopefully you will have the opportunity to become friends and be a beacon for others.
What keeps you motivated to be an avid supporter of not only people with developmental disabilities, but such a wide range of humanitarian causes?
One of the most rewarding aspects of what we have been able to do at the National Inclusion Project is to open doors, to help provide opportunities for people of all abilities to be included. These experiences and the positive impact inspires myself and our entire team to work harder and try to do more.
What advice do you have for your fans who want to support people with developmental disabilities or your fans who wish to become advocates/humanitarians?
Many of my fans are already supporters and to them I extend my sincere appreciation. However, I would like to see all of the fans and their friends become supporters and advocates for inclusion. The National Inclusion Project’s mission is so much bigger and more important than just me and our team. We have made great strides but have only scratched the surface.
To find out more about the New Horizons 2015 Gala, click here
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