Independent Living Moves into the 21st Century


In the early 1980s a seed was planted in Canada, and nearly 15 years later, the Canadian Independent Living (IL) Movement is still growing and branching out into communities across the country.

In the spirit of the “Progress Through Partnerships” National Independent Living Conference (which is being held from August 24 to 27 in Winnipeg as a vehicle to share ideas between people with disabilities, government officials, researchers and the community at large), this article aims to provide the reader with an overview of the IL Movement in Canada – where did IL come from? What has it accomplished? And what is its future?

Independent Living in Canada emerged from an American framework which was developed by students with disabilities at Berkeley in California. During this period, the American IL philosophy was characterized by: (1) consumer control; (2) flexibility; and (3) services which are responsive to recipients’ needs. These principles were first embraced in Canada by consumers involved in the well-established Canadian Consumer Movement, who subsequently transplanted and transformed the American framework into the current Canadian model for Independent Living.

IL is marked by a philosophy which emphasizes and, more importantly, enables people with disabilities to have access to resources which ensure that individuals have the right to examine options, to make choices, to assume responsibility to take risks and, finally, the right to make mistakes. In short, Independent Living recognizes that people with disabilities have the same capacity to manage individual decisions as anyone else in Canadian society. This goal is realized by the adherence to four core principles: consumer control; cross-disability; community-based approaches; and promotion of integration and full participation in society. Simply put, this understanding embraces the notion that organizations of people with disabilities can exist, rather than simply organizations for people with disabilities.

By the mid-1980s a total of five Independent Living Resource Centres (ILRCs) were operating in cities across Canada, including Waterloo, Toronto and Thunder Bay (all in Ontario), Calgary (Alberta) and Winnipeg (Manitoba). In May of 1986, the Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres (CAILC) was formally established as a national umbrella organization controlled by the individual community-based ILRCs. As a national organization, CAILC’s responsibilities consist primarily of providing support, networking with government and non-government organizations, training, and information dissemination. Currently, there are 21 ILRCs located in a majority of Canadian provinces, which employ over 100 individuals – the majority of whom are people with disabilities.

In November of 1988, the Canadian Independent Living Movement entered into a partnership with the federal government which continues to contribute positively to both the lives of individual Canadians and the communities in which they live. Indeed, the “Special Initiative” (as it has come to be known) ensured the full development of the four core programs promoted at each ILRC. They include: information and referral; peer support and counselling; IL/empowerment skills development; and service development capacity. Through these programs, it is estimated that, collectively, Independent Living Resource Centres directly affect thousands of Canadians every day; and since ILRCs make up an integral part of the community in which they are located, the number of people who are served by Independent Living is far-reaching.

The Independent Living philosophy and its delivery system (through local ILRCs) is clearly a proven vehicle to enable proactively people with disabilities to access the resources which permit their full participation and integration into Canadian society. The Special Initiative comes to an end in March of 1996, at which point new funding options will need to be located and secured if the current momentum, established over a decade ago, is to be maintained.

A recently published CAILC document entitled The Canadian Independent Living Movement: An Historical Overview has revealed some exciting new funding developments which ILRCs have initiated. Centres from across the country have been successful in securing funds from provincial and municipal governments and through fundraising events, individual and business donations, and publication sales. In the near future, funds will also be accessed through the newly formed Independent Living Foundation. As well, centres in Ontario and British Columbia have formed the Ontario Network of Independent Living Centres (ONILC) and the BC Network of ILRCs respectively, in an attempt to direct attention from provincial government policy as well as develop funding networks at the provincial level.

Many exciting options exist for the future of IL in Canada! As the Special Initiative comes to an end, government officials, CAILC, ILRC staff, board members and consumers will be evaluating the overall impact IL has had on Canadian communities. Although difficult to determine because of its broad and far-reaching implications, it is important to document one central consideration which has the potential to directly affect thousands of consumers.

Lloyd Axworthy, Minister of Human Resources Development, has initiated a comprehensive review of Canada’s existing social security system in an attempt to find new and innovative service delivery strategies. CAILC and local ILRCs have conclusively demonstrated that the Independent Living philosophy, along with its service delivery system, offers Canadians a cost-effective model which directly reduces an individual’s reliance on government. Instead of dependency, the individual is empowered and, as a result, the environment in which we all live is examined and its exclusionary nature revealed.

The Ontario government has already acknowledged this and has recently unveiled a two-year pilot project to provide 80 to 100 individuals direct funding to purchase their own attendant services, administered through the Centre for Independent Living in Toronto. Under this program, the individual is no longer dependent on an institutional structure, but instead has more independence and control over his or her personal affairs.

The Canadian Independent Living Movement is composed of many dynamic and fluid elements which, taken as a whole, directly contribute to the personal empowerment of people with disabilities. As well, IL ensures that our communities proactively include people with disabilities – a segment of the population which historically has been pushed to the margins of Canadian society. ILRCs are places where people with disabilities can promote their independence and participate fully in the life of their community. Many individuals have been able to remove themselves from isolated, medically oriented service systems which have served to disempower their daily lives.

Independent Living emphasizes consumer control, cross-disability, community-based approaches, and full integration and participation in Canadian society. Since the first centre was opened in the early 1980s, these guiding principles have formed the continued development of IL in Canada.
A community-based movement has been developing for over a decade in Canada with limited resources, but the individuals who believe in the IL philosophy have continued to promote its positive effects. We are all confident that the Independent Living model of service delivery will directly benefit people with disabilities, as well as be an economically viable model for the government to consider. In addition, Independent Living has broader implications concerning the manner in which services are delivered to all Canadians.

(Fraser Valentine is a researcher at CAILC and is pursuing his Master’s degree in Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.)

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