What does it mean to be part of a community? To recognize oneself and be recognized as a member of a social group, neighbourhood, or everyday world? As an anthropologist, these questions are standard fare. As the only sister of a woman with disabilities and deafblindness, they are deeply personal.
On paper, my adult sister has a great setup. Katie receives government funding to live in a home five minutes from my parents, with a lovely roommate and conscientious caregivers. Yet my sister lives in near total isolation, with no friends, activities or hobbies. And I know that as an adult with complex disabilities, she is not alone.
Katie has a genetic condition called CHARGE syndrome and needs 24-hour care. She’s never communicated verbally, although she knows some signs and her expressions of happiness and dissatisfaction are easy to read.
Katie can’t drive, cook, or really care for herself, although she can feed, bathe and dress herself with a little assistance. As the mother of a toddler, I'd say that she and my son operate on similar levels. Although I'd prefer to write something lighter and more optimistic, the truth is that Katie can’t do most of what able-bodied adults, or even children, can.
These complex disabilities mean that independence, communication and social connections look different for Katie. She finds agency in deciding what she’ll have for her snack, for instance, or whether she’ll relax with television or ask to go for a ride in the car. She asserts herself by refusing to participate in an activity or by showing joy and excitement over trying something new. She expresses love and caring by sitting quietly next to someone, giving hugs, or simply smiling. She likes to pat my son on the head, but has been known to pinch him when she’s fed up.
It can take time and patience for people to learn how Katie expresses her needs, preferences and desires. Yet again and again I have witnessed her win over caregivers, professionals and acquaintances with her unique charms. This makes it even sadder to me that when I visit my hometown, where I no longer live, my sister is largely alone.
Among adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the U.S., Katie is considered one of the lucky ones, meaning that she neither lives in an institutional setting nor in her childhood home. Her access to a high-quality home and staff ensure that my parents don’t bear the brunt of Katie’s lifelong caregiving needs, which will become more complicated as we all grow older. Still, as both an anthropologist and a sibling, I am disturbed by what I see.
When I visit my sister, I can't help notice her neighbours’ lowered gazes as they quickly shuffle from their driveways to their own homes; we've never exchanged a word other than “hello.” I can only imagine what the children and teenagers on the block think of her house. Katie does not go for walks—indeed, I don’t believe her street even has sidewalks—so her only time outside is when she walks the 10 feet to a waiting car to take her somewhere, typically to a park or the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant. Katie might be in the community, spatially speaking, but she is not there in any meaningful way.
Even more disturbing is my sister’s lack of activities and hobbies, which would provide a sense of accomplishment and give her new social connections. For several years, she loved attending weekly equine therapy classes, but then the program lost funding and eliminated its offerings for adults with disabilities. My family investigated volunteer options, such as sorting food containers or recycling for nonprofits or donation sites, but came up short. One well-known local organization even told us that they couldn't let Katie volunteer for them because she might harm herself, offering paternalism as a thinly veiled substitute for blatant discrimination.
The longer Katie lives like this, the farther she seems to withdraw into herself. She loses skills she once had and, at least to me, seems less able to connect with others. She develops essentially anti-social behaviours, such as eating with her hands instead of a fork, which would likely be interpreted as a product of her disabilities even though they are completely new. Although I now live in another state and can no longer participate actively in my sister’s daily life, I am consistently saddened by what I see when I visit. And this is in a state that rates average or above in disability inclusion. To be sure, the situation is far worse in many parts of the U.S. and elsewhere.
The inadequacies of the current independent living and social inclusion movement are more than disability rights issues. They also connect closely to individual safety and public health. We are all safer when we have networks of people—family, friends, coworkers, neighbors and acquaintances —looking out for us. Katie has very few of these. Similarly, there is increasing scientific evidence that social isolation is bad for our health. How might it look if we as a society began to approach social engagement for people with disabilities not as a luxury, but instead as a pressing public health issue?
While great strides have been made in recent decades regarding the integration of people with disabilities, there's much more work to do. The need to rethink what we mean by inclusion is urgent. In the U.S., only 13 states plus Washington, D.C. have closed all of their institutions and, thanks to changes in federal law such structures will soon be a thing of the past. According to United Cerebral Palsy’s most recent annual study, The Case for Inclusion, since 1960 over half of our existing institutions have closed, and 16 more are slated to shut their doors by 2016.
Why not seize this transitional moment to prioritize a new approach to community services and opportunities that make social inclusion a reality, such as increasing access to recreational and employment programs for adults with disabilities? The challenges are large-scale and will require a powerful effort to effect change in existing structures, practices and assumptions. It must no longer be acceptable to equate integration with community living services. Families, self-advocates and allies must demand a more holistic, respectful form of inclusion that acknowledges the social rights and needs of people with disabilities. I, for one, think the time has come.
For more on community living and inclusion, refer to the University of Minnesota’s Research and Training Center on Community Inclusion and to United Cerebral Palsy’s The Case for Inclusion 2014. The Center for Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies at Syracuse University also has an extensive list of relevant resources.
Please follow Liz on her fascinating blog Disability Fieldnotes or on Twitter @LizLewisAnthro. Her last piece for BLOOM was Disability was home: From big sister to anthropologist.