Column from November 17, 1999
Independent Living: Building Power Individually and Collectively
Copyright 1999 by Laura Hershey
It's been exactly one year since I took on the job of Interim Director of the Disability Center for Independent Living (DCIL) in Denver; and exactly six months since I left that job, having fulfilled the commitment to which I had agreed. I never wanted to be the permanent director, but I was willing to step in when the Center was abandoned by its previous director and most of its staff. At that time, DCIL desperately needed temporary leadership in order to keep its doors open, to hire new staff, and to stabilize it until a permanent director could be found.
Without going into all the particular details about my experience with DCIL, I would like to share, briefly, one of the most important things I learned about Independent Living during my time there.
My experience at DCIL reinforced my belief in both service to individuals with disabilities, and advocacy for systemic change. The most important thing that an Independent Living Center can and should do is to change society, to make the world we live in more accessible and more supportive of people with disabilities. Advocacy and systems change should be at the heart of everything we do. At the same time, Independent Living Centers have a duty to assist individuals with disabilities in accessing the resources they need to get their needs met. Some people see this as an inherent contradiction. IL workers ask themselves and each other, "What's more important? Service or advocacy?"
But it's not an either-or choice, and it's not a contradiction. In my view, it is precisely that obligation to assist individual consumers in need which makes an ILC such a powerful advocacy force. ILCs serve some of the neediest people in our communities -- people who live in poverty; people who have been forced out of their jobs; people who have endured violence or harassment; people who have, or are about to, lose their homes; people entangled in the oppressive rules of various bureaucracies. These people have the most to gain, and the least to lose, from real, far-reaching social and/or systemic change. They have little or no stake in current political or economic arrangements, which have largely failed them. Unlike some advocacy professionals, they have not built careers on managing incremental change. Instead, their lives depend on radical changes in our system(s).
These individuals do have to place their survival needs foremost on their list of priorities. They do not have the luxury of spending a lot of time studying issues, making political contacts, or mapping out long-term advocacy strategies. They may not be well-versed in political science and legislative procedures, even though they have a bone-deep understanding of issues like poverty, housing shortages, inadequate health care, discrimination, etc. This is where an Independent Living Center can truly serve as a catalyst for advocacy. An ILC can help to create a structure wherein many separate, impoverished individuals can come together, can be enriched and energized through the root relatedness of their common issues. An ILC can keep track of important meetings, legislative hearings, and so on, so that individuals can know when opportunities arise to make an impact on the political process or on designing systems. An ILC can offer information, training and education that can help people become more powerful advocates. An ILC can provide practical support to advocates -- things like transportation to meetings and demonstrations, printing and photocopying, postage, access to telephones and fax machines and computers.
Every "consumer" (I hate that word!) who comes through the door of an ILC should be viewed as a potential advocate. When people present problems and needs, we sometimes forget to look for their capabilities and strengths. A good ILC zeros in on those strengths, finds and nurtures them -- even as it responds to the immediate needs of the person. That's how our community transforms itself from neediness to power.
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