Community is a concept most people don't think about a great deal. They make the assumption that the sense of "community" is there, and that they belong by default. Unfortunately, for individuals with disabilities or of diverse ethnic backgrounds, they often do not experience this same assumption. When a community only welcomes participation by a few, alienating those of different abilities and cultures, it weakens the social structure for all of us.
What is "community"?
The dictionary indicates that it is: a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
This definition lacks the soul and spirit that truly defines a community. Under the guidelines of the Community Involvement Network project, a "community" is an environment where an individual is known and respected. Abilities, not disabilities, are recognized and welcomed. Ideally, people are supported by others with similar goals, ideas, and or needs.
What is The Community Involvement Network?
The Network is a project based on the concept that individuals with disabilities are an unrecognized source of talent and skills in our communities. It believes that there should be opportunities for community participation by everyone. The Network Facilitator, Diana Francis, is actively involved in various programs in the area and is able to look for opportunities to involve diverse people in those programs. She is also available to offer training and information to help overcome barriers that prevent a community from including all of it members.
What are the barriers to an Inclusive Community?
Fear is the biggest barrier to an inclusive community. Many typical individuals will avoid diverse populations for fear of being politically incorrect. They avoid contact for fear of embarrassing themselves when trying to "guess" in which jobs a person might do well. Mostly, people fear diversity itself! There are so many rumors, preconceptions, and misinformation! Once that barrier of fear is eased or lowered, many typical individuals are amazed to discover the Abilities of those they consider disAbled.
How are we making Inclusive Community a reality?
As agencies, school districts, employers and civic groups recognizing that community is supposed to be for everyone, they are making an effort to reach out and include individuals they previously excluded. By taking advantage of information that is now readily available and with the presence and help of the facilitator, many local groups in the Hazleton area are realizing that they have a great, untapped resource right in their region! Families and caregivers are also taking a more proactive role in asserting an individual's right to be involved in their community.
How can a parent/caregiver facilitate involvement of an individual with disabilities?
1) Take inventory -what does the person like to do? Want to do? What are they good at?
2) Take a good look at the options -what recreational/volunteer opportunities are available? Try and think outside the box and look at all the options including the YMCA, 4-H, and volunteer opportunities.
3) Ask for help - approach the staff of whatever organization you've chosen, and be upfront and honest. Recruit them! Explain what you are looking for and enlist their expertise (ie: Jimmy would like to join a swim class, and we will need your help to make it a successful opportunity for him.)
4) Offer solutions before things can be offered as problems. This may sometimes require an upfront investment of time from the family, but it can make things easier in the long run.
5) Encourage happiness! - if the person doesn't do well in the first activity, it may well be that it just isn't their "thing." Remember, typical kids often try several activities before they find the one that they love.
The Community Involvement Network is a project of the Family Service Association of Wyoming Valley, funded by the PA Developmental Disabilities Council.