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Published February 17, 2013, 11:40 PM

‘I Am a Person’: Film looks at support for North Dakotans with developmental disabilities

FARGO - Before 1982, most developmentally or intellectually disabled North Dakotans were institutionalized. Now, with the help of organizations like Fargo’s Fraser Ltd. and Friendship Inc., they’re an integrated part of the community.

By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM


What: “I Am a Person”

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Prairie Public, Channel 13 in F-M

FARGO - Before 1982, most developmentally or intellectually disabled North Dakotans were institutionalized.

Now, with the help of organizations like Fargo’s Fraser Ltd. and Friendship Inc., they’re an integrated part of the community.

Thanks to a landmark court decision, people like 52-year-old Burke Ulmer of Fargo are able to live independently with support services.

Ulmer lives in an apartment with a roommate, holds a job at the Vocational Training Center and participates in the Special Olympics.

“How many people back then would even think that they could live in their own apartment with assistance?” says Fraser Residential Coordinator Michelle Brunner.

To mark 30 years since The Arc of North Dakota v. Olson, Prairie Public took a look at the care and services provided for those with developmental disabilities in its “I Am a Person” documentary, which premieres Wednesday night.

In the class-action lawsuit, Judge Bruce Van Sickle found that the state schools in Grafton and San Haven violated the constitutional rights of their residents.

“We started out, as you can tell from the video, institutionalizing people, and in a relatively short period of time, we’ve turned that around. I thought people needed to be aware of that. I was afraid it was going to be forgotten,” says Sandra Leyland, Fraser’s executive director.

In a clip provided by Prairie Public, Roberta Middagh recalls her time in the 1970s when she was institutionalized at Grafton. She recently celebrated 40 years on her own.

“I do not have many happy memories of living there. I had no choice, no rights, no chance at being the person I knew and believed I could be,” she says in the documentary.

With a grant from the North Dakota Council on Developmental Disabilities, executive producer Kim Stenehjem turned her camera on individuals and care providers from Fargo-Moorhead and around the state to give the general public an idea of what their day-to-day lives are like and how they’ve changed since 1982.

“Going around meeting all these people, I was just continually astonished at the wonderful care that they’re being given and how individualized it is,” she says.

The 14 individuals (about half are from the F-M area) featured in her “I Am a Person” project were more capable than she expected.

“They have the training they need to be able to do as much for themselves as they can, and where they can’t, they have somebody to help them,” she says.

Stenehjem also didn’t expect to see such close ties between the clients and their support-service staff.

“They’re not just somebody who comes in and does things for them. They really develop very close relationships,” she says.

Ulmer’s caregivers are an important part of his life. They help him with tasks like grocery shopping and organize events like bowling parties or outings to Monster Jam. He holds season passes for Bison football.

Sandi Marshall, CEO of Development Homes Inc. in Grand Forks, another organization featured in the film, says dispelling myths about people with intellectual disabilities and their providers was one of the main goals of the documentary.

“Most of all, we wanted to be able to share with people that people with disabilities are a lot more like us than different, and that they want essentially the same things that we want in our lives,” she says.

Although the Arc decision forced the privatization of care, all three women say there’s still work to be done, namely within society. They hope the film helps encourage sensitivity, understanding and acceptance.

“I would encourage people to get to know people with disabilities in their community. They’re not people to be afraid of,” says Marshall, also the president of the North Dakota Association of Community Providers.

She says the next step is better integration – you don’t have to be institutionalized to be isolated; you can be isolated in the community, too, if the only people you associate with are caregivers or other people with disabilities.

“We believe that it’s not enough just to be living in the community; we also want the people we support to have relationships with others in the community and to be really included in community activities,” she says.

In North Dakota, about 6,000 people work to help improve their quality of life.

“A lot of lives are touched in North Dakota by people with disabilities and by the industry that serves them,” says Marshall, who calls the documentary a “very human story.”

Leyland, Stenehjem and Marshall say reception to “I Am a Person” at private screenings held here and in Grand Forks has been positive.

“I think the film does an excellent job at identifying people with disabilities as ordinary people,” Leyland says. “They have things they have to overcome and support that they need, but for the most part, they’re able to live and function, provided they have those supports.”

Residents like Ulmer, who benefit from the community-based services brought about by the decision 30 years ago, agree.

“It’s nice,” Ulmer said of the film’s message.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590