Picture of 10 flamingos with reflections in the water, ducks looking on from the shore.

Community Integration

Community is a form of medicine, writes Rachel Setzer.  She found healing in reconnecting with her Cherokee Ancestors’ traditions:

You are here, you are part of your community, you should be counted and cared for, and society has to be adjusted to help you get your needs met. Accommodations for your disabilities are your birthright because you were born and are still alive.

Rachel Setzer, Disability Visibility Project

Setzer challenges the “notion that one not only can but MUST meet all their own needs without help from others.”  Indeed, many people with disabilities remind us that community and peer support can be far more effective than costlier “scientific” solutions. 

While I want to avoid fetishizing Native American wisdom, Setzer’s observation resonated for me because of what clients have told me over the years.  They often said the most meaningful help came from within their community—church, family, a social worker from the same background, mental health community peers.  Indeed,  Mental Health America notes that peer support, from “someone who shares the experience of living with a psychiatric disorder and/or addiction,” is gaining widespread acceptance as an evidence-based practice often covered by insurance. 

Olmstead:  The ADA Community Mandate

These ideas may sound far from anything in the legal world, but the ADA does require community integration.  Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson won a Supreme Court case giving them—and others—the right to be in the community, rather than a segregated institution, in Olmstead v. L.C.[1] 

As the Bazelon Center notes, states have responded to the Olmstead decision and subsequent lawsuits by finding ways to keep people in the community: supportive housing and employment, community treatment, peer support, and mobile crisis teams that can head off hospitalization.

I’m Glad to Be Free

“I’m Glad to Be Free” — Lois Curtis

After winning the Olmstead community integration case in the Supreme Court, Lois Curtis picked a  roommate, built a microboard (a group of friends to help with services and supports), and pursued her artwork.  She presented a painting to President Barack Obama at the White House in 2011.  She goes to church and the swimming pool.[2]  “I’m glad to be free,” she said in February 2020 in a National Disability Rights Network video.

“Community Integration” Pitfalls

A note of caution—it is easy to misuse the label “community integration.” Discharge to the street is not community integration.  Group homes or privately run institutions that sport “community” labels in segregated settings are still discriminatory.[3]  Services provided by outsiders, often white professionals serving communities of color, “parachuting in to help the poor and deserving” then returning to their homes, drain rather than enhance community resources.

I Am Not a Rock

As Setzer and Curtis’s stories attest, true community integration means just that—surrounding ourselves with other people and supporting each other.[4]  A friend of mine used to tell the story of listening to Paul Simon’s “I Am a Rock”—a song about the pain of isolation—with a fellow high schooler who took it literally, praising the narrator’s “strength.” We all laughed, but how often do we set just this type of ideal, expecting ourselves and others to act alone?

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[1] 527 U.S. 581 (1999).

[2] Lauren Applebaum, Lois Curtis: Woman with Disabilities Fights for Freedom For All, Respect Ability, Mar. 15, 2019, at https://www.respectability.org/2019/03/women-disabilities-lois-curtis/.

[3] “The physical location of a living setting in the community, its private ownership, or the absence of characteristics generally associated with a hospital do not guarantee that residents with mental disabilities are free of the discrimination and segregation prohibited by the ADA.”  Bazelon Center, Olmstead:  Implementing the Integration Mandate  (2016), at http://www.bazelon.org/olmstead-integration-mandate/.

[4] See also Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Care Work:  Dreaming Disability Justice (2018).