Out in the world, and working

Times Staff Writer

In the last century, people who are mentally disabled have gone from family attics, to institutions, to day centers, to finally mingling with “normaloids,” a term used by Mike Danneker, executive director of the Westside Regional Center, part of the state system that funds programs for adults with autism, cerebral palsy and mental disabilities.

“Professionals in the business used to pat them on the head, plug them into institutions and programs and have them do things no one would otherwise ever do,” he says. “We would have them string beads, or put pegs in holes, and then tell them to tear it apart and do it all over again.”

Then came the Lanterman Act, passed in California in 1973 and revised in 1977. It gave people with developmental disabilities the same rights and responsibilities guaranteed for everyone, and set up a statewide system of regional centers to advocate for and protect those rights. Among them is the right to live and work in the least restrictive environment possible.

For people with the most severe disabilities, that could still mean life at a state institution. But for most people, that isn’t necessary. “The majority of people with retardation have mild retardation,” says Dr. Paula Pompa-Craven, vice president of Easter Seals Southern California.


A network of 21 regional centers, with seven in L.A. County, is funded by the state and contracts with providers to help clients with housing, transportation and healthcare. The centers also help clients learn skills and, if possible, get and hold jobs. Depending on the client, that might mean communication, social or work skills. Or it could mean work in a sheltered program, making and selling crafts, for example.

Services, for the most part, have gone beyond meaningless bead and peg exercises, says Pompa-Craven. And the cultural shift has gotten many people with mental disabilities out of isolated day programs and into the real world.

In California, nearly 11% of working-age adults, or about 2.3 million people, have a disability, and about 4%, or 847,000 people, have a mental disability, according to a 2006 report by the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics at Cornell University. About 37% of disabled adults (27% of adults with a mental disability) are employed full or part time, compared with 77% of adults without disabilities, according to the report.