It’s 6:30 a.m., and Patty Ardueser’s awake, eating pizza for breakfast before another day of work.
She usually saves her paychecks, but like any woman, she likes to splurge on a new pair of shoes every now and then. She loves a good plate of spaghetti while watching the newest episode of “Deal or No Deal.” And she has Down syndrome.
Ardueser is a 58-year-old Fort Collins native. As a past Special Olympics gold medal holder, she’s competitive. She loves to go bowling with her friends and family. She goes to church on Sundays where she sings her heart out and admits to loving Kenny Rogers songs.
Ardueser is a client and employee of Foothills Gateway Inc., a local non-profit organization that provides services for residents in Larimer County who have cognitive disabilities. Their mission is to not only support citizens with a wide range of cognitive disabilities and help them achieve their goals and maximum potential, but also support those who live, learn or work with them on a regular basis.
Foothills Gateway serves as the starting point for people with disabilities developed at birth and throughout their entire lives. Established in 1972, families who had loved ones with disabilities in both Loveland and Fort Collins “dreamed big,” as one employee described it, and created this facility to meet the needs of Larimer County residents.
The now $19 million-a-year organization started off as a place where people with disabilities could receive specialized education because it had not yet been integrated into public schools. Now, employees at Foothills act as advocates, mentors, supporters and friends to all clients.
Diana Foland, the center’s Fund Development director who has worked at the facility for 22 years, said, “I have learned more from these people than I have given back to them.”
She said the organization works with more than 1,400 individuals throughout the county.
The center’s work came to light as the nation recognized October as Down Syndrome Awareness month. Down syndrome, which affects more than 400,000 people in the United States, according to the National Down Syndrome Society, occurs when an individual has three, rather than just two, copies of the 21st chromosome.
“I think people are afraid of what they don’t understand,” Foland said. “Individuals with Down syndrome are capable of holding jobs and volunteering. They pay taxes, and they just want to be contributing community members, too. They’re just like everybody else.”
According to NDSS, most people with Down syndrome have IQs that fall in the mild to moderate range of intellectual disability.
When talking with Ardueser, it’s apparent that she knows what she wants to say, but struggles to relay it verbally. Her thoughts often come out in one or two-word bursts.
Sometimes, when asked a question, she becomes distracted, seeming to drift away.
But when she’s able to vocalize her ideas, she looks up with a dazed sense of pride.
Karin Bright, the accommodations counselor for CSU’s Resources for Disabled Students office, said that even in a college-educated community, the office still sees the general public making inferences about students who have disabilities.
“It’s the language that we use that perpetrates the negative stereotypes,” Bright said.
Bright used examples of how people often say how an individual is “overcoming” their disability, as if it’s a negative thing. She also pointed out how many people use the phrase “confined to a wheelchair.”
Bright said a wheelchair is a tool used for greater accessibility.
“They are not confined to a wheelchair,” she said.
Bright said many students are guilty of what she calls “ablism,” which is a form of discrimination when people without a disability help those with disabilities out of pity, going out of their way to be nice to them.
“It’s their environment that we have to tweak in order to be successful in this office,” she said.
Foothills Gateway does just that. Counselors work with outside employers and staff members to better educate patients and help facilitate relations between the larger population and their clients in the early stages of their career.
As for Ardueser, she recalls one of her friends, named Eric, who is now out in the work force thanks to the support of the counselors.
“I like to go visit Eric at work. He used to come to Foothills Gateway with me,” Ardueser said.
Whether they’re working, attending church, hanging out with friends, riding on TransFort’s buses or attending classes, people with Down syndrome live promising and joyful lives.
“If people would just take the time to get to know these individuals, they would see that they have the same wants and needs as the rest of us,” Foland said.
Staff writer Katelyn McNamera can be reached at email@example.com.