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National Service and Inclusion Project

Inclusion: The active engagement of people with disabilities as service members in all levels of national and community service

Visit NSIP's sister site The National Service to Employment Project (NextSTEP)


Disability Awareness: Beyond the Day

Sometimes national service and disability organizations use "disability awareness days" to teach service members and volunteers about the disability experience. These days may use simulations to convey what it's like to live with a disability. Participants are blindfolded, for example, or put into a wheelchair and told not to use their legs. However, many disability advocates feel that simulations are the wrong way to go.

What's wrong with simulations?

When a person with a disability is seen as helpless, barriers go up in the minds of the people around them. People with disabilities want to be included in their communities and be treated like anyone else-- with dignity and respect. In reality, people with disabilities do everything others do, just differently.

Bottom line: National service organizations should sensitize participants to the disability experience, but there are better ways to do it.

Better ideas

The key to increasing understanding is to have people see what it's like to have a disability first-hand-- from people in the disability community, not a blindfold.

These experiences send service members the message that despite a disability, a person can cope, learn, and contribute to society. Attitude change doesn't happen overnight, but these doses of real-life experience can open doors for service members.

Ed Roberts: Father of the Independent Living Movement/Mover and Shaker

A polio survivor born in 1939, Ed Roberts used a ventilator by day and an iron lung by night. In 1961, California Vocational Rehabilitation denied him services due to the severity of his disability, which led the agency to consider him unemployable. The University of California at Berkeley hesitated to admit him for the same reason but did in 1962. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science.

On campus, Roberts began to talk with other students who had disabilities, eventually organizing them into a disability rights group called "The Rolling Quads." Roberts couched their demands as a civil rights struggle, not a question of health care. In 1970, he established an on-campus center for people with disabilities. He then shifted his focus to the surrounding city, helping to establish the Berkeley Center for Independent Living. This spawned a movement of independent living centers, which share the core values of advocacy, independent living skills training, information and referral, and peer counseling. Today there are nearly 400 independent living centers in the U.S.

Ironically, in 1975 Roberts became the director of the same agency that said that he was too severely disabled to be educated. He led the agency for eight years, then co-founded the World Institute on Disability think tank. Roberts was also a MacArthur Fellow, an avid traveler, and a father. His story illustrates the need for people with disabilities to direct their own futures. And it shows that no one should be underestimated or dismissed out of hand.

Sidebar adapted in part from the websites of the Impact (IL) and Berkeley (CA) centers for independent living.

Suggested reading:

Valerie Brew-Parrish is a polio survivor and a longtime disability activist. She has a M.S. degree from Southern Illinois University and writes a disability column for the Herald News. This brief was adapted by Danielle Dreilinger from an NSIP presentation by Valerie and from her article "The Wrong Message-- Still," published in Ragged Edge, 2004.

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©The National Service Inclusion Project (NSIP) is a training and technical assistance provider on disability inclusion. NSIP partners with the Association on University Centers on Disability, National Council on Independent Living, Association on Higher Education and Disability and National Down Syndrome Congress to build connections between disability organizations and all CNCS grantees, including national directs, to increase the participation of people with disabilities in national service.