Rethinking disabilities: 

Towards inclusive communities 

Michael Peterson 


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 swimming). 

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: 

  • Relationships and care. Change and building community is based first on relationships, building of trust. Meetings must be held at least as often in kitchens, parks, and local community restaurants as in offices. 
  • Fun. If we are not having fun we decided then this is a powerful message that something is wrong and we have to stop, slow down, listen. 
  • Vision and ideas. People don't building community by being angry, even if the anger is for a good reason. It is why the fight against oppression is a necessary but insufficient motivational force for long-term change. Change is brought about by a glimmering, positive vision of a better future and ideas, ideas, and ideas explored, massaged, rethought, and crystallized.
  • Volunteer work and funding. It is clear that there is sometimes nothing that will kill a good idea than to provide funds to support it. On the other hand, such support is crucial. When ideas, relationships and commitment undergird efforts to move forward before funds come, the likelihood of ongoing success is greater. 
  • Connecting and attending. It is a struggle. People and issues need to be connected; everything is and we have much to gain through connections. On the other hand, people need to be supported where they are right now so that they have resources to help them through their struggles. How we come together to both connect and attend is a tension. 
  • Staying the course. Nothing matters more than staying together and keeping and clarifying and constantly reshaping through learning a vision of our work together. But key is to stay, be there for one another as we move forward. 

Inclusive Community and Democracy web site 


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