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Meaningful Lives, Community Connections: Vulnerability and Community Roles
by Elizabeth Neuville
In organizations and movements that are founded to promote the welfare and well being of children, we often hear about the importance of children experiencing membership in their communities. I, too, believe that strong connections and ties to family, school, neighborhood, and community, are essential to the growth of strong children, as well as strong communities. The role of community member is a powerful one, which yields great benefit.
Close family ties, dear friendships, and a complex, diverse, and robust web of relationships offer powerful protections to vulnerable people. The experience of being known truly as a person with a unique identity increases the likelihood that people will respond when all is not well. Being not only present but fully included means that people will take notice when a child is in pain, is lonely, is suffering in some way, or has a need that is unmet. More importantly, being truly seen and known as a unique individual increases the likelihood that the response from others will be helpful and useful.
Many typical children experience the role of community member in literally hundreds of ways. Some of the major roles within the broad scope of community for kids include being a neighbor, a student, a classmate. Within each of these areas are specific roles that are of great impact. Within the role of student a child may experience being a reader, a class member, a student congress leader, a member of the school band, a chess club member, a best friend, an honor role student, a class leader, an artist. In the area of home, a child may experience being a family member, a pet owner, a chore-doer, a party host, and a neighbor. These are just a few of the everyday roles that comprise "membership" as a child in a community. My daughter Sarah beams with pride when it is her turn to be the "line leader" for recess in Kindergarten. My son Steven has been challenged by his membership in a drama class, and has met many friends there. From these and many more roles, children derive a sense of true belonging, and with this belonging comes self-confidence, a strong platform from which to learn and grow, and a better chance to contribute to society.
In the lives of children experiencing disabilities and other vulnerabilities, that role of community member is particularly important. The protections offered by powerful community roles are rarely available as fully to the children who may need them the most. Many times, nearly as soon as an impairment or disability is discovered, processes are set in motion that serve to alienate the child from family, peers, neighborhood, and community. Where I live, children with relatively mild impairments as young as three years old can be sent to segregated pre-schools, where all of their peers are other children with disabilities, in all likelihood beginning a school career marked by segregation and isolation. Separate classrooms, often located in storerooms or in school basements, separate schools, often located far from their neighborhoods, even separate school buses, separate baseball leagues, and separate worship services await many children. Institutionalization in residential facilities is still very much a possibility. One can see how living in what amounts to a "disability world" is so often what the future holds for kids with disabilities.
The results of this are devastating to children and their families, and to the entire social fabric as well. Those everyday roles that protect, nurture, and strengthen children can be very weak, or perhaps not be present at all. The role of being a "disabled child" takes on a life of its own, and can drive out nearly all of the other roles the person might have. The child becomes vulnerable to all sorts of devastating stereotypes and horrendously low expectations and assumptions about what they need. They are subjected to environments where they have few typical role models, do not learn about how to function in the world, and often get surrounded by paid caregivers, who may by their very presence not leave room for the natural supports of freely given friendships and relationships which are so important to a full and rich life. They become terribly vulnerable to the whims of funding, politicians, and human service systems. History has shown us over and over what happens behind the closed doors of institutions where people identified as different have been segregated and congregated together.
A strong and healthy society needs to experience the gifts that are offered by all of its members. By extending true membership to all children, we create the conditions for positive contributions from all, openness to the richness of diversity, and wide eyes and hearts to see the value of each of us.