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The Independent Living Movement and Disability Rights

Although individuals with disabilities around the country began to take steps toward creating their own civil rights movement, Berkeley, California, is recognized as the “birthplace” of the Disability Civil Rights/Independent Living Movement. In the 1960s a group of students with disabilities at the University of California, Berkeley, worked on removing architectural barriers on the campus and in the surrounding community. They taught themselves the daily living skills needed to survive. They learned how to hire and train personal assistants to provide the physical assistance they needed. They also reached out to other people with disabilities and began to create a new model for self-help and peer support. In 1972 the group moved out from the campus to the community and opened the first Independent Living Center.

The independent living and disability rights movement that grew out of the late 1960s was unique in two critical ways. First, people with disabilities were in charge of their own advocacy organization. People with disabilities moved away from the charity-based model that dominated many existing disability organizations. Second, people with various types of disabilities began to join together in their advocacy efforts. It became apparent that the old system of single disability organizations had separated people with disabilities from each other. The in-fighting that resulted prevented them from gaining any true sense of the shared power of disability rights as a social and civil rights movement. By joining together and advocating for the rights of all people with disabilities, these new “cross disability” organizations did away with the “divide and conquer” influence that had limited the effectiveness of disability-specific organizations.

Vermont’s own Center for Independent Living was formed in 1979 by a small but dedicated group of individuals. A statewide door-to-door survey of Vermonters with disabilities found that many individuals with disabilities and their families shared a common desire for disability information, peer support and the opportunity to come together to make social change. People from all over Vermont came together to create a statewide organization that could focus on disability rights and independent living and bring people together to solve problems facing people with disabilities. They established their nonprofit status and obtained the initial funding needed to set up the Vermont Center for Independent Living (VCIL). In 1980, VCIL successfully advocated for state legislation and funding for the program that is now known as the Attendant Services Program. For many people the word independence meant being able to live outside a nursing home. At that time, there were few state or federally funded attendant or personal service options and none that allowed you to hire your own attendant, pay a spouse to provide the service, or stay on the program if you went to work. If you didn’t have the help you needed to get out of bed or carry out any of the other survival requirements for daily life, you were dependent on a facility to provide those for you. Creating the Attendant Services Program for the people who needed it was a major victory. The Vermont Center for Independent Living supports independent living goals for a diverse disability community but it started with attendant care.