An editorial by Jolene Thibedeau Boyd, Director of Employment & Community Supports
“Some people describe social justice as “what love looks like in public.” Social Justice means working to create a world where we all can be our whole selves. It is working to create a world where everyone is respected and treated fairly. People doing social justice work are working to combat oppression. Oppression means using power to keep someone down.” (Retrieved from the National Youth Leadership Network website.)
Today we’re taking a brief break from the great stories about employment success and creative community collaborations to step back for a moment, and allow me the luxury of this forum to do some editorializing. In the past few weeks, a well-known media source for developmental disability news, Disability Scoop, has posted not just one, but TWO articles that sent shivers down my spine. The first title, pleasant-sounding enough, was “New Housing Concept Emerging For Those With Disabilities”. But I’ve heard many “professionals” (or even family members) try to convince people with disabilities that they really know what is best for those individuals. So when I read this title, my head literally tilted skeptically as I was reading it. And then I read the article which, in my opinion, tried to sell the idea of a segregated community for people with disabilities as a “new concept” (it’s right there in the title). The article quoted the board president of one of these communities as indicating that this supported “the concept of the inclusive community,” explaining that “some oversight [would be] provided by parent volunteers” and that it “provides a level of trust that most other residential settings can’t provide”. The article also suggests that “it’s a concept gaining acceptance nationwide, providing a stimulating community setting for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are capable of living with some degree of independence.” To this I must respond: There are communities all over the country right now that can provide a stimulating environment for people with all types of disabilities who are capable of living with some degree of independence (and, arguably, for those individuals who don’t have a disability as well as those who need lots of assistance and support, too). I live in one of those communities, and I’d be willing to bet that you do, too. This “solution” simply blurs the real issues, that there is a serious lack of affordable housing for people who have modest means or live in poverty and that most people with disability face a lifetime of poverty, in large part because of the very systems that “professionals” have built through the past few decades, ostensibly to “help” people with disabilities.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, just over a week after this article was published came another chilling headline: “Former Prison May Become Home For Adults With Special Needs”. I know I am not the only person who is almost sickened by this. I found myself wondering if the folks who are considering this in Vero Beach, FL recognize the irony of the concept: Many of the buildings that made up the state institutions that used to house people with disabilities before the “de-institutionalization movement” were later converted to prisons. At least that is the case in MN. It is so disheartening to read stories like this at a time when, all over the country, we are seeing stories of success that include allowing, encouraging, and creatively supporting people with all kinds of disabilities to be contributing members of their communities…the same communities in which you and I live…through their work, where they live, and a rich myriad of social connections and networks. I worry that perhaps we are forgetting our not-so-distant history of warehousing people with disabilities in deplorable conditions, “tucked away” in “communities for the disabled”…out of sight, out of mind. I for one am not willing to accept that kind of backsliding. One small thing that I do to try to ensure that we never forget this past is to have each and every employee we hire watch “Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years after Willowbrook”, a critically acclaimed, award-winning documentary that examines the impact of the horrors of life at the Willowbrook State School for people with developmental disabilities on the survivors and their families, 25 years after Geraldo Rivera’s historic television exposé.
I can assume that the people behind the projects described in the Disability Scoop articles mean well, but I believe they are seriously misguided. And I think they are heading down a road that looks frightfully similar to concepts from the past that were also well-intentioned at first, but eventually served only to exclude segments of our population from opportunities to live and work in their communities, side by side with others who share their interests, dreams, heartaches, and joys. I believe that to allow this today is simply unconscionable. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We must always remember.