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Stigma Free Communities, A Place For Some Unsung Heroes

By Edie Johnson


Keith Andrew is not from New Jersey, but he has something in common with many who live there. Keith was born with some special challenges, including dyslexia and the inability to concentrate on long spells of speech or writing. But Keith has made some nearly miraculous accomplishments despite his difficulties. And we want to showcase both his accomplishments and those of us who have other “special challenges”. We ALL have special challenges as well as special abilities. It’s just that some are more noticeable to the general population than others. Having attended Monroe-Woodbury High School, and getting special support from the Audio Visual Department, he has launched an incredible adventure. He has a regular PODCAST where he interviews interesting people, many of them being others who have overcome daunting odds. His venture has been portrayed by Fox News as well as a show that broadcasts from Canada. The one thing that Keith really wanted to know when he came to our office for an interview was “Why is it that I’ll be talking to someone about being on my show, and they seem very interested until they hear that I have a ‘disability’.” I told him that I thought that like travel is the antidote for hatred (because once you get to know a people and land you usually end up finding things you love”). Interaction with people who have special challenges is a compelling force for change, especially if there is some kind of fear at the base. Once you know something or someone the fear generally disappears like magic. If there is nothing unknown, there is nothing to fear.


Ramsey High School ‘Stigma Free’ Walk and Talk-at hon

Like Keith, there are numerous towns and people in New Jersey who have and are tackling the “stigma” that is sometimes attached to people with special challenges.

In recent decades there has been much improvement, especially with programs designed for exclusivity. So, New Jersey now has a growing list of communities that call themselves “Stigma Free Communities”. Like any label, the title can only do so much. There needs to be a host of supportive programs to make the label useful. But already communities in Northern New Jersey have reported lower numbers of suicides, and numerous incidental reports of people labeled “Manic-depressive”, or “Schizophrenic”, who have come out, sought, and received more support and acceptance for their disorders, and increased understanding in the general community. Rutgers University has even started a shared press release composite to help towns interested in becoming Stigma Free. Other towns have kits of ideas to help make the program successful. Ramsey High School held a rally on their football field followed by a Walk and Talkative.

The concept has been presented to the Town of Blooming Grove which just may end up being the first community in Orange County to declare themselves Stigma Free. So far they have just been presented with the concept but were receptive. Feelers have been sent out to Orange County officials to suggest that the idea travel from town to town, and collect ideas. The idea to design such programs in Orange County came after the county’s suicide walk and a tragic loss in Washingtonian. If we try to stop a suicide it is very late in the game. It is in fact akin to suggesting treatment for a Stage 4 cancer patient. Of course, it is important to tackle overwhelming challenges when they are at their peak. But how much better a chance there is to help someone get on a better, more successful path with reachable goals before a situation becomes a crisis.



Hoboken was one of the first towns to declare itself stigma-free. Now there are over 70.

Stay tuned for more about Keith’s amazing progress and PODCAST, and the trail of stigma-free communities we hope to support. Our next report on this innovative program will include feedback from the County Executive’s Office and Darcy Miller, Commissioner of Social Services.

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