Why Do We Have to Work for People to Be Part of the Community?

The blog this week was written by George T. Martin, President of The Arcadia Institute. When we launched our Community Participation in 2007, our main goal was to open doors to community programs that serve all our citizens. We wanted people with disabilities to be fully included wherever they choose to be involved.

We started with the assumption that community agencies would respond positively. After over six years of the Initiative and over one year of Community Brokering we know that this assumption was an accurate one. The community has responded and opened its doors. They have welcomed over 300 individual participants and our staff to coach them when they have needed to learn new skills.

At various points in this work we ask ourselves, ‘Why is it necessary that we have to do anything for people with disabilities to be with everyone else?’. We know that the obvious answer is that they have been separated for so many years that people have to learn new ways. As we probe deeper and ask what brought about this state of affairs in which one group of people were (and in many places still are) systematically separated from the community at large, we are beginning to see that the history goes back to our founding as a nation. It goes back even further to the body of thought upon which our nation was founded.

Our two primary founding documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were influenced heavily by the social contract theories that mostly originated with English philosophers. In her book Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, Martha Nussbaum, a professor at the University of Chicago, makes a clear and compelling case that people with disabilities, and especially those with severe intellectual disabilities, were not included in the original contract. Neither were people of color, Native American Indians and women. However, at least they were included later on by Constitutional Amendments and legislation. Despite the fact that we have seen many efforts to disenfranchise members of those groups, they have had enough political power and support to maintain their ‘derived’ membership in the contract. This original condition has made it easy for the rest of our country to exclude people with disabilities at the same time they believe they are supporting the basic political values on which the country was founded.

Even though we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, it does not secure rights to full community participation. Moreover, since it only has the status of enacted legislation, it can be changed by the same method. We need to re-think the very basis of community membership and secure the status of people with disabilities as an entitlement, not as some kind of act driven by benevolence or the good will of the rest of society.

We need to think of people with disabilities as being in community as a natural right that should be codified as an assured legal right. As we move in that direction, let us act as if it is so and assume that the rest of the community agrees with us. In our work we have gotten a lot of mileage with that mindset. As we do so, let us be aware that we are contradicting philosophical and legal barriers to participation.