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Nicolas Steenhout's Are independent living centers just glorified sheltered workshops?


I have witnessed Center directors "assigning" disabilities to board members.

Wow. I can't believe someone could just nail it down like that ("Are independent living centers just glorified sheltered workshops?" Sept./Oct.) It was as if Nicolas Steenhout wrote down my thoughts for me.

I struggled for a long time leaving "mainstream" corporate work to work at our independent living center, because I thought the best advocacy work was "living the life" rather than working at a center. Now, at the Center, I sometimes don't now feel as visible as I once did. But other times I feel more visible. I am able to make my work meaningful -- and I do get the independent philosophy across to folks sometimes. And I do have victories sometimes. But I struggle daily to motivate those around me to work hard. I struggle to balance theory with reality, what we want with what we know we can get.

Brenda Kotewa, Living Independence Network Corp., Boise, Idaho

You sure know how to get right to the heart of the issue. My staff were very upset when I read the title to them. It seems that it is hard for them to see the truth in the article.

But it's time we address this growing problem. Too many centers are part of the problem, not part of the solution. The lack of advocacy in these hard times and an honest view of what we have become, need further discussion.

Paul Spooner, MetroWest CIL, Framingham, MA

Steenhout's article hits the nail on the head! It is good to see in writing what is -- and has been -- happening to independent living centers and their operations. I believe one of the main underlying reasons is our funding source, and the path it takes to get to us. Ed Roberts' operations were truly non-funding dependent, and therefore effective.

Jerry Kainulainen, Southeast Alaska Independent Living, Juneau

Nic Steenhout makes good observation about the CIL "devolution." I have witnessed Center directors assigning disabilities to staff or board members -- even though the staff or board member may not think they have a disability -- just to be in compliance with the law.

Helen Kutz, Norman, OK

I disagree with Nicolas Steenhout about centers for independent living being gloried sheltered workshops. If that is the way you view CILs, then in your eyes that is what they will be. 

After working in a center for almost five years, three of them as Associate Director, I have seen a lot of problems; but I also seen a lot of goodness happen. You should have a set of values handed down to you from your Board of Directors that clearly define what your center can and cannot do. What they want to create. Is the center going to be the kind of alternative service organization that is at the heart of the independent living movement, or are they going to be just another human service agency? Your board must make this decision -- but do not forget: your board should be at least 51 percent people with disabilities -- and I mean disabilities that are representative of the population you are serving. Otherwise they are IL Movement outsiders.   

Steenhout's problem with staffing is not unique to CILs. Every entry-level business has the same revolving-door problem and learning curve with new employees. It is just something you have to deal with through better interviewing, selecting employees through volunteer pools, better training programs. Steenhout's expectations for his center are higher than perhaps the center or its leadership or staff wish it to be. If that is the case, then perhaps he is in the wrong employment. From the beginning, centers were never created to be a fancy human service agency providing services to people with disabilities. Those centers who chose to take the big contracts to make money compromised their values by becoming a service provider.

Go back to the basics.

Michael D. Paul, MSW, CSW, Center for Community Access, Inc., Detroit

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