In the 1980s, community-organizing strategies were formally applied to the lives of people with disabilities. These individuals were invited into the activities of ordinary groups and organizations, from orchestras and churches, to day care centres and bowling leagues. Although these kinds of relationships had developed informally for years, the welfare system never took advantage of them, partly because of its "needs-based" focus on providing services.
When they were allowed to participate, the newly-included individuals thrived, as expected. But so did the communities that welcomed them. Groups realized that these people had special skills and talents. They also found that there was inherent value in helping people participate. It made their communities stronger and more vibrant.
These experiences highlight a new way of thinking about communities. Healthy relationship are an essential part of community vitality. We must ensure the talents, gifts and contributions of marginalized people are not covered up and left to languish. They should be exercised, developed and given to the community.
Such reciprocal relationships have fallen victim in the past to the needs-based social services system. We must learn when to get out of the way and when to provide support. Paid relationships based on needs must not inappropriately replace reciprocal relationships based on contribution. A network of family, friends and colleagues makes for higher quality of life than client-contractor relationships alone.
There are already too many barriers to participation for people who have physical, emotional or mental disabilities. Modern technology, forms of production and urban design have created great opportunities for people with disabilities to live and work independently. But they can also conspire to isolate people from their communities.
How can people with disabilities be welcomed into society?
First, we can make the social service system more flexible, in order to accommodate non-standard forms of contribution. Society needs to broaden its definition of contribution and value beyond the formal economy.
Organizations need to address barriers to participation in the workplace.
We need to make work arrangements more flexible in terms of work hours and locations, so that everyone's talents can be used to the fullest.
Communities must change their way of viewing people with differences. Many marginalized people are isolated by their physical disabilities or by the attitudes of society. We must have higher expectations of all people's potential and their obligation to contribute.
New techniques must be developed to create relationships, so that people with unusual gifts are able to share them and enjoy the natural, reciprocal hospitality of their communities.
When they take their place as citizens, as contributing members of society, marginalized people will move beyond holding basic rights and achieve dignity, something no law can deliver. And their communities will have discovered a new source of skills, creativity and vitality.
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