Most Americans take for granted opportunities they have regarding living arrangements employment situations, means of transportation, social and recreational activities, and other aspects of everyday life. For many Americans with disabilities, barriers in their communities take away or severely limit their choices. These barriers may be obvious, such as lack of ramped entrances for people who use wheelchairs, lack of interpreters or captioning for people with hearing impairments, lack of Brailed, digital or recorded copies of printed material for people who have visual impairments. Other barriers—frequently less obvious–can be even more limiting for efforts on the part of people with disabilities to live independently, and they result from people’s misunderstandings and prejudices about disability. These barriers result in low expectations about things people with disabilities can achieve.
So, people with disabilities not only have to deal with the effects of their disabling conditions, but they also have to deal with these barriers; otherwise, they are likely to be limited to a life of dependency and low personal satisfaction. This need not occur. Millions of people all over America who experience disabilities have established lives of independence. They fulfill all kinds of roles in their communities, from employers and employees to marriage partners to parents to students to athletes to politicians to taxpayers–an unlimited list. In most cases, the barriers facing them haven’t been removed, but these individuals have been successful in overcoming or at least dealing with them.
A Definition of Independent Living
What is independent living? Essentially, it is living, working and playing just like everyone else–having opportunities to make decisions that affect one’s life, able to pursue activities of one’s own choosing–limited only in the same ways that one’s neighbors who are not disabled are limited.
Independent living should not be defined in terms of living on one’s own, being employed in a job fitting one’s capabilities and interests, or having an active social life.
These are aspects of living independently. Independent living has to do with self- determination. It is having the right and the opportunity to pursue a course of action and it is having the freedom to fail–and to learn from one’s failures, just as people without disabilities do.
There are, of course, individuals who have certain mental impairments which may affect their abilities to make complicated decisions or pursue complex activities. For those individuals, independent living means having every opportunity to be as self-sufficient as possible. Independent living, it isn’t easy, and it can be risky, but millions of people with disabilities rate higher than a life of dependency, narrow opportunities and unfulfilled expectations.
The Independent Living Movement
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this idea led people with disabilities from around the country to take active roles on local and national levels in shaping decisions on issues affecting their lives. A major part of these activities involved formation of community- based groups of people with different types of disabilities who joined together to identify barriers and gaps in service delivery. To address barriers, action plans were developed to educate the community and to influence policy makers at all levels to change regulations and to introduce barrier-removing legislation. To address gaps in services, a new method of service delivery was conceived – one which has people with disabilities determining the kinds of services essential to living independently, has people with disabilities directing the delivery of the services, and has people with disabilities actually providing these services. The catalyst for this new service delivery system was called the center for independent living.
The earliest center was formed in 1972 in Berkeley, California, soon followed that same year by centers in Boston and Houston. In 1978, following effective advocacy by people with disabilities and their supporters all over the country, federal legislation was passed that provided funding to establish centers for independent living, under (Title VII of the Rehabilitation Act). Today, there are centers in virtually every state and U.S. Territory.