skip to content

Cornell University. ILR School. Employment and Disability Institute

Course 2: Community Membership: Opportunities for Meaningful Interaction

"Clearly it is in our human grasp to see each other differently, to change our structures so that the barriers are leveled and to embrace each other's presence as full members of human society" ~ Judith Snow

A critical assumption of person-centered practices is the pivotal nature of the community. It is through connectedness in the community that people define and realize themselves, and through which important things actually get done. Unfortunately, people with disability labels have been excluded from the mainstream of society for centuries. Because of this lack of access to and involvement in community life, the value of certain groups of people has not been fully realized. Thus, many people do not know how to connect with others through the formation of social bonds.

We live in an era where specialization of roles and functions dominates the service industry. In light of this, it is critical to build communities with people -- not systems -- as the core focus for service provision. Although specialized roles may offer a deeper knowledge and experiential base, specialized roles are, at the same time, quite limited in their ability to offer support that spans multiple categories. Stop for a moment to think about what happens to the person who wants or needs something outside the realm of any particular specialized service. How do they access the needed or wanted service? Who do they go to, and how long must they wait? What happens if the service is not available? What if a person has needs or wants that cross a couple of different areas of importance, such as wanting a new job and a different place to live? How will this be paid for?

Person-centered planning processes attempt to identify and highlight the unique talents, gifts, and capabilities inherent in everyone. We explore and discover where in the "real" world these gifts can be shared, appreciated, and reciprocated, and where the person's contributions and social roles will be valued. This simply cannot happen in isolated or segregated environments. Nor can it occur in environments that claim to have exclusive capability to supply all the resources and energy to the people who are seeking services. Most importantly, it is not something to be done "on" or "to" a person.

Community building rattles the foundation upon which the concepts for traditional service provision have been built. It presumes the creation of partnerships and the development of collaborative relationships beyond the typical framework of roles and scope of work embedded in traditional service structures by reaching out to others who may be better suited to moving a person nearer to his or her object of focus. Community building requires intentional thought and action.

In their book "Members of Each Other: Building Community in Company with People with Developmental Disabilities" (1991) John O'Brien and Connie Lyle O'Brien identified five commitments that build community. These commitments must be explored on a regular basis to make certain that important players are moving in and out of the dynamic process as necessary to keep the person and his or her supporters on target and moving forward toward the realization of his or her life-defining priorities. The five commitments are:

  • Anchors - these are people who commit because they love that person and will be concerned with that person's well being over time. They are a source of continuity for the person.
  • Allies - are people who commit their time and resources with the person to make a jointly meaningful change. They offer practical help, assist with problem solving, lend experience and skills and offer useful information. They make contacts for one another and bring others into the alliance.
  • Assistance - these folks provide the help a person needs to deal with the effects of disability so that they can contribute their gifts. The commitment is to offer necessary help, in a respectful, creative and flexible way, without taking over.
  • Associations - are the social structures groups of people create to further their interests.
  • Agendas - organize action and insure the development and implementation of just and effective policies.