After 14 Years in an Institution, This Man Left to Live Life on His Own Terms and Inspire Others

This is a guest post from The Arc.

Ricardo Thornton always had big hopes and dreams, but as is often the case with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), they seemed almost impossible to achieve. Fourteen years of Ricardo’s childhood was spent in Forest Haven in Laurel, Md. Forest Haven (closed in 1991) was the District of Columbia’s public institution for children and adults with a variety of mental, intellectual and developmental disabilities that had a dark history of abuse of residents and below standard conditions. His sister and brother were also residents, and sadly his sister died there, never experiencing a full life outside of the institution.

Ricardo was determined that his life would have a different outcome, but leaving the institution was just the beginning of his struggle. Ricardo took his first step by landing a job at the Martin Luther King Library, where he has worked for more than 35 years. Donna, a friend and fellow former resident of Forest Haven, got a job nearby at Walter Reed Medical Center. Donna soon got her own apartment, and Ricardo’s weekly visits to her blossomed into romance.

For most, this would not be extraordinary, but at that time people with I/DD were rarely encouraged to live independently and certainly not to get married. Unlike The Arc, most developmental disabilities agencies, caregivers and even family members did not believe that people with I/DD could be employed, let alone live independently. Fewer still believed that they could have mature, intimate relationships.

Ricardo and Donna forged the way, but the journey wasn’t easy. While other couples only need to fill out basic information for a marriage license, Ricardo and Donna were told that it was illegal for people with I/DD to get married in D.C. With support from The Arc of D.C. and other disability rights organizations, and through the couple’s own sheer determination, Ricardo and Donna eventually realized their dream of being together.

Life progressed, and like many newlyweds they wrestled with the question of parenthood, something their friends and medical personnel advised against. Eventually they had a baby boy, who is now a successful 25-year-old with a wife and daughter of his own.

Now, Ricardo is one of The Arc’s most well-known self-advocates — living life on his own terms and inspiring others with I/DD. He shares his life story with audiences across the country, pointing out that making his hopes and dreams a reality required determination and the right amount of help, guidance and resources. His inspirational story has even been made into a movie called Profoundly Normal.

“I’ve seen people with severe disabilities who have grown and accomplished great things given the right support,” he testified before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP).

The Arc is proud to have been able to help Ricardo achieve his goals for more than 30 years. The Arc supports individuals with I/DD in communities nationwide through a national network of chapters. In many cases, what people like Ricardo hope and dream for is what we often take for granted — from securing a job and getting married to having a child and living in the community of their choice on their own terms. We continue to advocate on behalf of the thousands of people with I/DD who are still living in state run institutions. With the tireless efforts of The Arc of Alabama, Alabama became the first state in the southeast to no longer operate large public institutions, and in December 2014, Illinois will have closed 4 out of the 5 of its state run institutions.

The Arc will continue its important work to help people like Ricardo and Donna live life on their own terms. Learn more about The Arc here.

Photo credit: The Arc


Lin M
Lin M4 years ago

Great story that gives hope to many people.

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se4 years ago


Jenna Summers
Jennifer B4 years ago

Nice to hear a story of persistence, perserverance, and resilience overcoming the odds. :)

Laura Saxon
.4 years ago

Good for him! Thanks for sharing.

leonie trevanion
Leonie Trevanion4 years ago

Good story

Anne Moran
Anne M4 years ago

Glad he went on to live a normal life, despite what others thought, or might have said about him...

Great story...!!!!

Janet Nelson
Janet Nelson4 years ago

May your lives always be Blessed, Ricardo and Donna! Thank you to The Arc and the editors at Care2 for sharing this story.

Kamia T.
Kamia T4 years ago

I love to hear that these people got the help and backing they needed. Too often, people with disabilities just get shunted outside of normal society, and even though we all still have aspirations, dreams and potential, it often doesn't get to blossom and grow. ARC is one of the really great resources that does a tremendous job!

Barbara L.
Past Member 4 years ago

What a heart-warming story. Just because a person has a "disability" it does not mean that that person cannot contribute to society. One of our church members has Downs' Syndrome and has won "employee of the month" more than once. This member sings in our church choir and ushers at our church. And, yes, this person has a significant other, too!

Christopher Fidoe
Christopher F4 years ago

good story!