Individuals with Disabilities Lead the Way to a Community of Belonging

I have worked over 5 years for The Arcadia Institute coordinating The Community Participation Initiative and Community Brokering. Through our work to help individuals connect to meaningful activities, employment and living arrangements outside of programs specific to people with disabilities, I now embrace the power of following individual choice. I have learned that individuals' choices, preferences and interests lead us to broaden and deepen our relationships in the community. As we follow individuals' lead to find activities, people and places that they want to belong to, the whole community benefits from new connections. I see us becoming a community of belonging when we follow individuals' lead. Through finding activities that individuals we work with would like to become participants, The Arcadia Institute has interacted at some level with over 170 community organizations. We have introduced people with disabilities to these organizations as possible participants, volunteers, apartment residents and employees. We have found that nearly all of the time organizations are welcoming, supportive and respectful of the individual. They want to find ways for all involved to be successful in their programs and activities.

I would like to point out that most of these connections were not the result of The Arcadia Institute Staff presenting to organizations or speaking at events about inclusion. These connections were mostly made because we followed individual choices, interests and preferences. We contacted or helped individuals contact the organizations they wanted to explore. Most of the time these connections resulted in individuals trying new things, enrolling in an activity, becoming a volunteer, getting a job, etc.

While making these connections is beneficial to individuals with disabilities, the bonus is that these organizations gain valuable experiences. When we follow the lead of individuals who truly have mutual interest and desire to be part of an organization's mission and purpose, everyone wants to be successful. The individuals are motivated to do their best and the organization is motivated to support them through any challenges that may arise.

One example is a man with Down Syndrome who loves to work in food preparation. We looked for places for him to volunteer, but he had limited transportation to get places. We found that a downtown church serves a meal for the community one evening per week. While the church members were welcoming of him being there, at first they did not really think he would contribute much to the activities. However, he had been previously employed in food preparation and he jumped right in to help prepare salads and serve food. Now nearly 4 years later, he is an integral part of the team. He is leading the way to dispel assumptions about disabilities and truly belongs in this community.

Since 2007, over 200 individuals with disabilities have been leading not only myself through The Arcadia Institute toward becoming a community of belonging; they have been leading the community.