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National Service and Inclusion Project

Inclusion: The active engagement of people with disabilities as service members in all levels of national and community service

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holding penField Essay


Service & Inclusion: How Do These Concepts Relate?

In my conversations with national service participants who have disabilities, there was a conspicuous resemblance between the ways they spoke of service and inclusion as concepts and ideals. Sofia Maneschi is an AmeriCorps*VISTA member who serves as a grant writer for the Center for Independent Living of Middle Tennessee. Her service was pivotal in securing funding for an information technology training initiative at the center:

Grant writing, that's a good skill to have, a marketable thing you can put on your resume. You're adding to yourself as a person and gaining all these valuable experiences. And then, this is what you can contribute to society. It's very much a symbiotic relationship: you're helping your community, and it in turn is helping you to build yourself.

As ideals, both service and inclusion were posited as dynamic relationships, exchanges of talents and opportunities. A personal understanding of interdependence is a life experience that all the participants brought to their service. Steve Royalty has received many awards, including one from the Governor of Kentucky for his service in multiple programs. Steve provides hospice care to seniors, sometimes in the same facility where he himself went through an extensive period of rehabilitation:

I believe that's what AmeriCorps is all about. I believe they're here to help people who need help. Now you say, "well Steve, don't you need help?" Yeah, I probably need it worse than anyone.

ADD Corps member, Linda Madison, explained that her commitment to service was indubitably tied to the fact that she relies on the assistance of others every day. After another ADD Corps member helped Anita Sutton to find the housing and services she needed to move out of an institution and into her own apartment, Anita joined the ADD Corps and went back to the facility to help others transition out. Anita and Linda were particularly successful at providing service as it was defined at the community level.

Participants viewed service as an opportunity, were confident about the contributions they are making, and were very clear about how the service experience has been beneficial to them. Patricia Lee , who serves in Self-Advocacy /AmeriCorps with her son, Mitchell Garlick , felt strongly about the connection between belonging and giving. She talked about resistance that people with disabilities have experienced from communities:

There's all this "not in my back yard," and it's due to their lack of knowledge about people with disabilities. And the only ones who can get that message across to them are people with disabilities. In order to include people with disabilities in the community, you need to have them more involved in things that involve the community. You need to give back. I always feel that you have to give back. And because you have a disability doesn't mean that you don't need to understand that and do the same thing. So I think it's important that people with disabilities do volunteer work because it's self-fulfilling and that makes a person feel better about themselves. That's a need that everyone has.

While some of the participants were involved in community work before serving, they recognized the particular significance of community service for people with disabilities as a group. The tendency to define people with disabilities as passive recipients of services rather than as active members of communities can be dramatically challenged through inclusion in national service.

In the mission statement for the Corporation for National Service, service is posited as both an opportunity and responsibility. Service activates a sense of civic duty, a shared investment in the health of communities, while providing opportunities for personal and educational growth. Arline Shier retired early from a successful entrepreneurial career when she acquired disabilities. She now facilitates exchanges between youth and isolated seniors in rural Vermont and hopes service will begin her transition back into the workforce:

I decided that what I needed to do was get out there and be present, and show them that disabled people are here, that we are visible, that we are a contributing factor to the community. We want the opportunity to prove ourselves. We all have gifts. And AmeriCorps has finally given me my opportunity to do something for others, to become a useful participant of society, to pay taxes, to help other people, and also to become visible again myself.

The close relationship between opportunity and responsibility clearly fits participants' expectations of inclusion. For staff of service programs, inclusion may only resonate as an aspect of legal responsibility. Ensuring that people with disabilities have access to the opportunities that national service programs offer is a matter of civil rights; but for inclusion to be successful, it must be recognized as beneficial to service programs and communities. Michai Freeman , who serves in two low-income housing facilities in the Bay Area, feels that service programs simply are not complete without the involvement of people with disabilities:

I don't see disability as something that happens to just disabled people. I see it as something that can happen in life. A lot of people become disabled through traumatic injury and diseases that manifest later in life. It's an equal opportunity event. People who are able-bodied right now, if this happens to you, you would want to be productive and contribute in life as much as possible. Helping [to make] life better for this large sector of the population helps able-bodied people as well. It's like an insurance policy.

Service programs are in a great position to benefit from the energy and skills of a large group of potential national service participants. The effort that programs will need to make both to recruit and accommodate qualified participants with disabilities is not a donation but an exchange from which communities and programs will benefit. Likewise, the commitment to diversity within service programs is inseparable from the importance of serving diverse communities. Michai explained how her experience with disability enriches the Community Development Corporation with whom she serves:

I think, due to their new developments working with people with disabilities, I am definitely an asset and I bring a certain understanding. I'll be able to understand, and be able to articulate, and help them to understand what some of the issues are among the tenants.

Steve Hoad, a member of the Maine Conservation Corps, also suggested that experiences with disability represent valuable perspectives:

Sometimes when people with disabilities are included in a program or in a work place or in a social organization, there's a whole different view added·a whole different idea of how to get things done may be approached.

Service represents a striking opportunity for people with disabilities to become more visible as contributing citizens. At the same time, the active recruitment of people with disabilities will bring a tremendous reservoir of talents, skills, and life experiences to communities. Steve's vision of inclusion has everything to do with community building:

The importance of inclusion is as simple as adding to the base of [human] power that's available, and something as complex as making a well-rounded society.

Inclusion from the perspective of these participants and their beneficiaries is service.

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Go to another chapter in the Field Essay:

  1. Introduction: Project and Methodology
  2. Service & Inclusion: How Do These Concepts Relate?
  3. Disability Awareness: Identifying Barriers to Inclusion
  4. Reasonable Accommodation: Examples and Recommendations
  5. Advice to Service Programs: For Successful Inclusion
  6. Appendix

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©The National Service Inclusion Project (NSIP) is a training and technical assistance provider on disability inclusion. NSIP partners with the Association on University Centers on Disability, National Council on Independent Living, Association on Higher Education and Disability and National Down Syndrome Congress to build connections between disability organizations and all CNCS grantees, including national directs, to increase the participation of people with disabilities in national service.