This Local Leader Is Getting His Community to Think Differently About Those With Special Needs

Residents of Dutchess County, New York, are being challenged to think differently about their neighbors with disabilities.

Until he had a daughter, Abigail, on the autism spectrum, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro hadn’t had much interaction with people with special needs. He wanted to ensure that would not be the case for people in his community.

In seeing his daughter’s challenges, Molinaro asked himself, “What’s my role? In county government and as an elected official, what can I do to make it a little easier?” From that question emerged the Think Differently initiative in 2014.

“We have been promoting, both in Dutchess County and across the state, this Think Differently movement, this effort to get people just to recognize that those living without disabilities are not different,” Molinaro said. “They have certain challenges they overcome, and we as a society need to do more to accept, respect, and support those living with special needs.”

The initiative has grown quickly. Now 60 municipalities across New York have adopted Think Differently resolutions of their own.

“We as a society need to do more to accept, respect, and support those living with special needs” – Marc Molinaro

In Dutchess County, events big and small help people with special needs integrate more fully into the community. Having hosted a senior citizens picnic for years, the county decided to start a special needs picnic, too. The idea, Molinaro said, is “to get families and those living with disabilities and advocates and agencies and present them all in one place at one time so that, in a non-threatening way, we are sharing information.”

They also help those with special needs enjoy activities many may take for granted, such as going to a movie. Twice a year, the county invites families to a special needs movie night in a local theater. The sound is kept low and the lights are kept up to be considerate of sensory issues, and there is no cost to those who attend.

The Think Differently initiative also gives athletes with special needs a space to compete. The Dutchess County Marathon now has a Think Differently Dash, a one-mile run which “highlights the capacity of every individual, every ability to compete and achieve.”

For the second consecutive year, they will also be hosting Special Olympics winter games “to highlight the capacity of these great athletes and, really, getting every resident of every ability to interact with each other.” Through this interaction, Molinaro said, “we’re learning more about one another and really, I think, confronting this quiet prejudice of low expectation that people sometimes have about those with disabilities.”

By appointing a deputy commissioner for special needs, the only position of its kind in New York state, Dutchess County has an advocate within county government to help special needs citizens and their families. That might be policy changes, adjustments to legislation, or advocating for families who need a voice in the government.

“The job for the commissioner is to heighten the quality of life for those of every ability,” Molinaro explained. “We’re building parks and playgrounds that are universally accessible.”

Getting this much done in only two years is an incredible accomplishment, and one that was personal to Molinaro because of his children. “It was born out of a selfish desire to have her dad, who has some influence, leave a community that is more accessible and supportive of her and kids and adults like her.”

However, Molinaro said that it’s even more important for Abigail’s 7-year-old brother, Jack.

“Jack,” Molinaro said, “understands that what dad is doing is getting people to love kids like Abigail and to see them the way he sees Abigail, [who] is just his sister.” He said that this is the true mission of Think Differently. “I think that that’s what this is more about. We as a society have to confront that. I can tell you that there are countless families who don’t want you to feel bad for them.”

Amelia Hamilton is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @ameliahammy.