I talk a lot about inclusion. Social inclusion for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is Community Connections’ 10-year strategic goal, so inclusion is a frequent topic for me. I include the concept in formal talks, casual conversation, with our internal stakeholders, with community members – pretty much any time I can get someone to stand still long enough to listen.
The advantages of inclusion are fairly clear. For people with disabilities, inclusion brings better health, increased prosperity, improved self-esteem and emotional well-being and literally longer life. For our communities, including people with disabilities, inclusion provides a stronger workforce, increased understanding for one another and all-round healthier, more productive communities. Evidence indicates that organizations that include more diverse teams have more creativity and are more financially stable.
With all these advantages, what is less clear is why we are not already more inclusive.
We can look to history for some hint of an answer. For a large part of history in the Western world, people with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities, were viewed negatively. At best, they were viewed as nonproductive. At worst, they were viewed as dangerous. The result of these negative views has been that for many centuries, in many cultures, people with intellectual disabilities have been either segregated from the rest of society or killed.
Segregation has been a major theme for people with intellectual disabilities over the ages. They have been evicted from their home communities so they would not be a burden. They have been sent to workhouses, poor houses and later to public- and privately-run institutions to be housed away from society. In wealthier families, a family member with an intellectual disability would be kept in attics or otherwise away from the view of others. Families were ashamed of their existence.
Early poor houses were dismal and unappealing places, designed to discourage people from taking advantage of their existence. Only in more recent centuries (starting in the 1800s) have many of the institutions where people with intellectual disabilities lived begun including some rehabilitative and educational components.
Any argument that these institutions were for the benefit of the people who lived there would be weak. Abuses and inhumane conditions have been rampant in institutions for as long as they have existed. Evidence does not support the view that segregation has helped people with intellectual disabilities be safe and secure, although these days that is the common perception.
Segregation has become so ingrained in our culture that we have forgotten its roots. We often attribute positive intentions to segregation: keeping people safe, allowing them opportunities they would not have in the general population, giving them the specialized attention that they need. In many cases today, that is the intent, but it is not the result.
Segregation of people with intellectual disabilities is based on millennia of fear and hatred. In these modern times, we can do better. We can work to make sure that everyone in our community has the dignity, well-being and opportunity to contribute to it that comes with inclusion.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.