Towards inclusive communities
In the United States at least 10% of the population has physical or
mental disabilities. Disability is a growing issue that impacts on and
is impacted by every aspect of our society. Violence, poverty, abuses,
poor working conditions directly cause or lead to disability. Disability
is no respecter of race, gender, class, or age (except that the older we
get the more of us will have disability). As one renowned disability advocacy
leader indicated, disability is part of the human condition.
And yet. We fear disability. It is hardly one the differences that typically
leads to celebration. And that fear most often leads us to reject. It is
not surprising that people with disabilities are the most segregated minority
group in the world. We have separate schools (special education schools),
separate workplaces (sheltered workshops), separate places to live (group
homes, nursing homes, institutions), and separate recreation (handicapped
In 1990, I remember attending a statewide meeting to discuss how people
with disabilities could be integrated into the community. Some of the leaders
of the meeting were people with disabilities. I remember a realization
hit me like a blinding light. "No wonder there is no 'integration in the
community'", I thought. "We all separate ourselves from one another and
there is very little 'community' in our communities today." This got me
to thinking back to my early adulthood working in very poor neighborhoods
in New York City when the concept of "building community" (though not in
those words was on my mind). "So integration of people with disabilities
in the community is not just a technical process related to disability,"
I thought. "It is about building a stronger community. If a community could
supports its weakest members, the fabric of that community could and would
support all. If a community rejected its weakest members, it likely at
some level rejected all."
A growing number of people are thinking and doing like this in the disability
community. And as people are truly becoming parts of their communities
the community itself is growing stronger. In schools, the inclusive education
movement is fostering classrooms, which welcome all students, including
those with mild to severe disabilities. In the process we are seeing all
children benefit. As people with disabilities move out of group homes and
have assistance in their own homes or apartments, as "circles of friends"
form around people with severe disabilities, as people with and without
disabilities become friends based on ongoing contacts in local community
places, as people with disabilities make choices for their lives and become
articulate spokespersons for the community - as all these things happen
we see the community growing stronger.
And yet community building and disability services are uneasy bedfellows.
Special service systems have long been established that separate rather
than include and support people with disabilities and the power, control,
and habits of segregation carried by these systems does not break easily,
and most often not from within.
This line of thinking led me and some colleagues to work in Detroit
(with collaborators increasingly in other states and countries) to build
a collaborative university - community partnership to explore the building
of democratic communities that include and celebrate all people. The work
over the last five years has been slow but growing. Here is a synopsis
of what we have done followed by a few points of what we are learning.
In 1994, a colleague and I gathered a group of university and community
people who met for several months exploring the question: "How could an
'inclusive community' actually be built in a local area?" We thought of
Detroit. Out of this came a paper, what I call an "operational framework"
for the human dimensions of inclusive community building which we called
the "Detroit Initiative for Inclusive Communities". This paper and the
thinking behind it has guided our work over the last four years as we have,
step-by-step gathered friends, allies, and supporters who are interested
in working with us, teaching us, co-learning with us.
As of spring, 1998, we are formally organizing a coalition of university
- community partners under the title of Inclusive
Community & Democracy. This is allowing us to link a series of
projects under a banner devoted to building community and engaging power
structures to promote democratic decision-making. We've centered our efforts
to date on two central thrusts: (1) the Whole
Schooling Consortium, (2) the Rouge
Forum, and (3) Building
Community Circles. These efforts have been difficult. People
in our society are so accustomed to "referring" people with disabilities
away to professional services that separate them from the community, so
afraid of disclosure and vulnerability required when asking for help, and
so unaccustomed to providing help to neighbors that we are in a constant
mode of helping people see new options. On the other hand, people really
do want to help, really do know there is a better way. Out of these efforts
we're developing a community of people who care about one another and are
willing to work to support people with disabilities and all at risk in
our communities. We're meeting, working, and doing.
What are our lessons about all this? A few come to mind:
Inclusive Community and Democracy web site