I have been interested in supports for people with disabilities my whole life. This was inspired in part by my childhood; some close friends of my parents had children who had severe impairments. This led me to seek ways in which we could improve educational and life outcomes for people with disabilities. Early on in my career, I began work as a special education teacher.
Those experiences helped shape my interest in people with disabilities, but a workshop I took during my doctorate program at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana was particularly pivotal for me. The workshop was called the Program Analysis of Service Systems (P.A.S.S). Wolf Wolfensberger, the designer of the program, brought ideas from Denmark and Sweden about the principle of “normalization.” In the early ‘70s, this principle was about facilitating as normal a life as possible for those with disabilities. At the time, conventional wisdom often had people with disabilities relegated to institutions and the margins of society.
The workshop challenged participants’ assumptions about people who have a disability, and what their relationship to the community could and should be – and ultimately the potential for what full lives are possible for those living with disabilities. The workshop inspired me to study de-institutionalization – the process of moving people out of institutions and into the community. This fostered a strong belief in me and other researchers in the benefit of including and valuing all community members, especially those with disabilities. Attitudes towards impairment have changed a lot in the United States in the last 40 years, yet the idea of de-marginalization rooted in the P.A.S.S. workshop remains relevant. Although subtle, there are still ways in which folks with disabilities become marginalized without the community realizing it. Here are three ideas that can help foster truly inclusive communities.
1. Acknowledge that “special” groups can be exclusive
Today in the United States, there’s a lot more subtlety about what marginalization means. Sometimes well-meaning community groups like churches or recreation centers want to include people with disabilities in their programs, but they do so by creating “special” programs specifically for those individuals. This stems from a common belief on the part of many community members that people with disabilities need “special” people to take care of them. Sometimes when people with disabilities are included in schools or workplaces, their aide or job coach serves as a barrier to relationships with others. Though well-intentioned, these types of subtle or overt separations can have the opposite effect of what was intended and put people on the fringes.
One way to profoundly help people with disabilities is to help them be more valued as contributors to society and to be included in ordinary, rather than separated life. Community members can be encouraged to get to know, include, and value fellow citizens with disabilities – in their schools, workplaces, congregations, groups, and as individuals. People with disabilities should and can be encouraged to have friends who are community members and be helped to live an included life within the community—not just operating on the margin or relegated to special groups away from the community at large.
2. Educate to promote healthy relationships
One of the most important things to people – especially those with intellectual disabilities – are their relationships with other people. They want to be valued, to have friends and romantic relationships. Our service systems, policies, and institutions aren’t doing enough to encourage and support healthy relationships, which is not only detrimental to self-esteem, but it makes those with intellectual disabilities particularly vulnerable to abuse. There are many types of abuse, including bullying, financial abuse, and sexual abuse – which is of special concern.
To best function as contributing members of the community, people with disabilities benefit from the same kinds of education as other community members when it comes to healthy personal and romantic relationships. Education is a valuable tool to help support healthy intimate, romantic, and sexual relationships that people with disabilities want and deserve. Educating people with disabilities to seek the right kinds of friendships, as well as facilitating sex education and teaching them to say “no” can also go a long way towards increasing the quality of their relationships while reducing their vulnerability.
People with disabilities should be honored for wanting to have more power and say in their life, and a major aspect of that is supporting sex education programs and intimate relationships.
3. Look for meaningful ways to be inclusive
If you’re a member of a community organization, fully include people who have disabilities into your programs, institutions, and clubs. Resist the idea that people with disabilities need “special” people to take care of them. Instead include them as full members of the larger group. People with disabilities have a lot to offer. If you have a vision of an inclusive community that means including people who have disabilities. It also means not just accepting the physical presence of individuals in a group, program, workplace, or congregation, but also getting to know them as friends and colleagues. Inclusivity is far more gratifying than specialization. If you have questions about how to be inclusive for people with disabilities, reach out to a human services professional for assistance.
If you’re a professional who works with people with disabilities, recognize the role of assisting community members to get to know and include people. One of the main things we can do in human services is to not keep everything specialized, but rather to use our expertise to empower the community to be more inclusive of all people. We can go beyond physical presence or just community “activities” to also encourage meaningful relationships and friendships.
What is ultimately most helpful and important for all community members is to appreciate a person with a disability for their gifts and what they have to offer. It’s important to understand that people with a disability have all the same needs, wants, and desires as you—and should be treated the same as anyone else.
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