Color & Control:

Thirty Years of Independent Living in Canada


Changing the Way We View Disability
By John Lord

Independent Living Canada (IL Canada) recently released a book titled Impact: Changing the Way We View Disability. This publication highlights the history and impact of the Independent Living (IL) movement in Canada. Here, author John Lord describes how the book project evolved and how IL continues to be a vibrant movement.

In June 1980, I attended the International Rehabilitation Congress in Winnipeg. Some people say this event marked the beginning of the IL movement in Canada. It was here that I first met early leaders Allan Simpson and Henry Enns. They understood the historical significance of this event. Henry Enns later said, upon reflection, “Never before in the history of humanity had people with disabilities from all over the world come together to share their experiences.”

Thirty years ago, IL became a rallying call for the disability movement. These early voices of vision and hope have grown to become a significant social movement—with 27 IL Centres now spread out across Canada. In 2006, IL Canada initiated the IL Impact Project. One key outcome of the project is the publication of a comprehensive book on the history and impact of the movement.

An IL lens was used in organizing the book. Consumers from IL Centres were asked to write about their experiences. We received numerous insightful stories about how IL has touched the lives of Canadians. I was privileged to work alongside Anna Quon and Daniel Bilodeau, who gathered stories from all parts of Canada. We worked in French and English, reflecting the diverse nature of the Canadian movement. The book is available in both languages. (The French title is Impact: Voir au-delà du handicap.)

We reviewed dozens of documents that were written about IL Canada over the years. This work uncovered some important insights into this rich social movement. I learned from Allan Simpson’s early thinking and writing—he saw how the IL movement needed to be transformative. Simpson knew that people with disabilities could no longer act like victims and needed to change their attitudes and actions. He also recognized that IL needed to influence societal institutions and have an impact on policy and practice.

This idea of two-sided transformation became woven into the fabric of the entire book project. In reviewing the research and details of the experiences that people have had at local Centres, I noted a recurring theme within the movement— “Consumers as Leaders.” As people with disabilities seek support from a Centre, they tend to reduce their confusion and confirm their strengths and gifts. As they deepen their understanding of IL, they typically increase participation in peer support, training opportunities and the wider community. With “Consumer Direction” and “Control” as guiding principles, many become aware of their own power and move from powerlessness to participation to leadership. This remarkable process of empowerment is repeated regularly in communities with IL Centres.

We learned that Centres have grown in their understanding of “community.” Although core programs are often the life-blood of Centres, the broader community is becoming more and more important as a place of possibilities. In many ways, Centres are learning that community is the core of citizenship and that community creates the space for people to experience their strengths and gifts. Centres have built a wide range of partnerships with community organizations. Our research shows that Centres are also having an enormous impact on their communities.

Traci Walters was National Director of IL Canada for 17 years, and played a major leadership role in this book project. She noted that the book creates an opportunity for the movement to build on lessons learned and move into the future to meet challenges and opportunities. Current and former leaders were asked to share their reflections on future directions. The issues they identified show that the IL movement is gradually shifting from the grassroots to the mainstream. Leaders identified issues that the movement must address as it moves ahead. These include sustainable leadership, funding and changing demographics. At the same time, leaders were optimistic because the foundations of the movement are sound. Self-determination and community, as well as new perspectives and new partnerships, provide a base for a resilient and abundant future.

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