When I was a teenager growing up on the Eastern Seaboard of Georgia, I attended a number of revival church services. Each one ended with ‘altar call’, a time when the lights were lowered, the organist played background music like ‘Softly and Tenderly’ with its haunting refrain of ‘come home’ (meaning come to your spiritual home with God and Jesus). The culmination of altar call came as people got out of their seats and came and knelt at the altar. Answering the call at altar time was a powerful experience, accompanied by a feeling of being lifted up. It was even referred to as being ‘on the mountain top’. I remember once after answering an altar call asking the minister, ‘What do you do when you come down from the mountain top.’ His response made it clear even to me then that he was virtually clueless.
I remember a more lasting reference to the mountain top in Dr. King’s last major speech before he was killed. He was warning the audience that his time might be limited, that he might not be with them when they attained the freedom he and they sought. But, he assured them that he had ‘been to the mountain top’. He had ‘looked over and seen the Promised Land’. I think this speech provided a moment of transcendence, or transformation, from ordinary time. Yet, Dr. King knew that no one can stay and live all their lives on the mountain top. We have to come down and life after the mountain top experience can become different in some important ways, but there will be continuity with life before the mountain top.
So, what does all this say about the ‘spirit of community future‘for people with disabilities? I think it says that life does have those moments of exceptional clarity and times that transcend ordinary time. However, life is mostly made up of continuous times in which action is taken that leads to other action. It says that we do not suddenly reach a point of transformation that causes the future to be totally different from the past and the present. We can have glimpses of what the future will be by recalling events and images of the past and current times. We can draw upon those glimpses to gain visions of what the future may be and how we may shape it.
I recall my friend Matt telling his mother that he no longer wanted to go to the mall with her or friends from the special school but that he wanted other friends. I can recall a young girl of five asking her mother why she had to ride that little special bus to school, rather than riding that bigger bus that all the neighborhood children rode. I remember Myrna Bartlett telling about the time she saw her son Tim with a group of people from the respite home looking badly groomed and unclean and vowing that Tim would have a different future. Then Myrna and Tim’s father Ed bought the house next door and made it Tim’s house with staff coming in to assist Tim to live like other people do. ‘Tim’s House’ became a symbol throughout the state for what an alternative live as an active part of the community could be.
I look around me today and I see staff at community agencies including children and adults in the programs they run for all people. I see dance instructors welcoming little girls with Down Syndrome into the classes for all little girls. I see a young man starting a job at a salary above minimum wage and being supported by his fellow workers and not a case worker. I see a man who was homeless living in his own apartment.
These memories and these current observations are a tapestry that points to what the future should look like, and will look like because once we let the community into the lives of people with disabilities and stop sending them the message that only experts know what to do with people who have disabilities, that broader community will begin giving direction to the professionals of the ‘disability field’ and not the other way.
The Spirit of Community Future for people with disabilities is one in which they come first and community comes first and the special professionals assume their proper place in the accompanying line. They will then carry on assured that there will always be a place for them there. It just won’t be a controlling one.