Spirit of Community Past

The blog this week was written by George Martin, President of The Arcadia Institute. In the mid-seventies, when I began my work as an advocate for people with disabilities, the most commonly used word I heard was ‘deinstitutionalization’, a. term that represented the policy of the State of Michigan. The term had two meanings, to bring all people home from large state institutions and to stop sending anyone else there.

Even though there was an emerging consensus that the policy was right, not everyone agreed. The professionals who worked in those institutions made a strong stand to keep people there, and they had strong support from the unions that represented them. A significant number of parents spoke out strongly in support of institutions, and they were a difficult force to confront face –to-face in either large or small groups. However, the movement toward community was driven by unacceptable conditions at state facilities, as well as growing evidence that we had alternatives in communities for places to live and engage in an array of community activities.

The place of ‘community’ in those past days was clearly better that the state institution. However the distinctive feature of the ‘spirit of community past’ is that the ‘place’ for persons with disabilities was determined by professionals and to some extent by their parents. The formal term used by mental health professionals to bring people back to the community was ‘community placement’. That meant that professionals, sometimes influenced by families, made the decisions about where people lived, and in many cases they were placed in counties they had never even seen much less lived in. None of this is to say that all the choices professionals made on behalf of other people were bad. In fact without the combined force of some mental health professionals and independent advocates, the State of Michigan would not be among the states today that have closed all of their state facilities for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Moreover, many of the people affected would have had no vision of an alternative place to live.

So, the move toward community was a good one. The driving spirit behind it was the work of professionals and not the people themselves. They had things done for them, on their behalf, and they ended up being ‘in’ the community but not a real participant ‘of’ the community. The ‘Spirit of Community Past’ left us with much work to do.