Including People with Disabilities Strengthens Communities


Ginger is independent, funny and has a passion for animals. Growing up in a rural community near Kalamazoo, Michigan, she loved and cared for the many dogs, cats and horses that surrounded her. She also has a developmental disability that limits her ability to drive and keep a job. Ginger wanted to share her love of animals, but didn’t know where to go. The Arcadia Institute Community Participation Initiative staff listened to her story, assessed her needs, and introduced her to the southwest Michigan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). This was the first step toward helping Ginger find an opportunity to work with people without disabilities, so that both she and the organization that welcomed her could learn about true community inclusion.

Initiative staff began advocating for Ginger by first meeting with the SPCA independently. After both the SPCA and Ginger knew what to expect, they helped her sign up as a volunteer and attend orientation. In the beginning, Initiative staff drove Ginger to SPCA twice a week and helped her get to know the other volunteers. Soon, Ginger felt comfortable enough to ride the bus to SPCA any time she felt like walking the dogs.

What is The Arcadia Institute Community Participation Initiative?
The Arcadia Institute has been a pioneer in the field of disabilities since 1994. The Community Participation Initiative brings individuals with disabilities and community organizations together. The Initiative staff work with individuals to find out what they want to do in the community, and then matches them with an existing program or activity that is open to everyone. The Initiative does not create programs or advocate that people join segregated special classes, but helps people with disabilities work and play alongside everyone else.

Initiative staff then works with the organizations offering community programs so they are equipped to welcome and support people with disabilities into their established programs. Comprehensive training and coaching are provided so that the experience is successful for everyone involved. If a problem arises, The Community Participation staff responds immediately with a solution. “When we started the Initiative five years ago, we began with the assumption that community agencies would embrace the idea that people with disabilities should be integrated with people without disabilities,” said George Martin, President of The Arcadia Institute. “We are pleased that our assumption has been validated, and it still is the foundation of our work.”

What does it mean to include everyone?
Why is it important for people with disabilities to be able to work and play in the community in other than special classes and programs? The Arcadia Institute believes that true community inclusion occurs when everyone, regardless of capability, participates side-by-side. Syracuse University’s Center for Human Policy has been working to promote community inclusion since 1979. Their philosophy states that people with disabilities have the right to inclusive education, living, employment, and leisure opportunities. It is also important for people with disabilities to play a large role in helping to design and facilitate their own care, opportunities and support.

Why not attend segregated classes or programs? “For many people with disabilities,” says Allison Hammond, Coordinator of the Community Participation Initiative, “the best way to learn how to be in the community is to learn to work and play with people without the disabilities. It helps them learn more quickly through role models to be a part of the community as a person with contributions to make.”

For members of the community without disabilities who participate in programs along with participants in the Initiative, it is also a learning experience and an exercise in valuing differences. Jenny Metz, Experiential Education Director of The Kalamazoo Nature Center, said, “When people with disabilities are included, they make friends and develop life-long relationships so that they can live the lives everyone wants to have.” Adults and children alike learn about the unique perspective people with disabilities have to contribute to the community experience. “The work of creating inclusive communities and an open society is not essentially a matter of resources, but how we think about people who have disabilities.”(The Center for Human Policy)

Why should organizations participate?
Hammond says she has found that the organizations she has contacted have, for the most part, been receptive to welcoming people with disabilities into their programs. To date, the Community Participation Initiative has worked with more than 250 individuals and 70 organizations in Kalamazoo County. Of those individuals, more than 70 percent have had a successful experience trying a new activity or are still working toward success. Organizations and businesses that are equipped to welcome people with disabilities are embodying the social responsibility principles that many participants and consumers have come to expect.

“We have found that integrating one person can start a systemic change in that organization. When people and staff in community organizations see that you do not have to be an expert to include people with disabilities they feel that they have the ability to expand opportunities. People or family members who thought an organization would not be able to include people with disabilities see that this is not the case.” Hammond observed. “We find that some organizations regularly have people with disabilities enroll in their programs now and that they call upon the Initiative staff less frequently.”

The key is the training and support provided through The Initiative. Bob Ezell, Executive Director of the Greater Kalamazoo Boys and Girls Club said, “We’ve had kids with disabilities involved in the program before, but we were not as effective as we are now.” The Arcadia Institute bridges the gap between individuals and organizations.

Ginger walks in the Kalamazoo Doodah parade with her furry companion and her SPCA friends.

In June, Ginger walked with her new SPCA friends in the downtown Kalamazoo Doodah Parade. They specifically invited her and made sure she had transportation. Hammond was heartened to learn that Ginger’s new friends took responsibility for her to be part of a traditional community event.

Ginger’s next interest: community gardening. Hammond laughed, “Now we get to learn about community gardens in Kalamazoo and the organizations that run them.”

The program is gaining momentum and turning more organizations into supporters. Martin hopes to expand the scope of services geographically and begin to consult with businesses about including people with disabilities in the workplace. “We are learning as we go. Community agencies are joining with us as partners. We are generating a true movement, rather than merely creating a program, both in Kalamazoo and around Michigan. Our goals include continuing the movement beyond Michigan as well.”

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at and @anewell3p on Twitter.

4 responses

  1. Great article. True community inclusion is especially interesting when it not only benefits the people involved, but the organizations and businesses that these individuals with disabilities work for — as evidenced by the creation of systemic change just with the addition of one person. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great article. True community inclusion is especially interesting when it not only benefits the people involved, but the organizations and businesses that these individuals with disabilities work for — as evidenced by the creation of systemic change just with the addition of one person. Thanks for sharing.

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