Independent Living

Seated in his wheelchair, Greg Smith holds the handle of a suitcase that is surrounded by other luggage items.

America’s Most Disability Friendly Cities
  • Pasadena, CA
  • Friendship Heights, MD
  • Highland Park, NK
  • Indianapolis, IN
  • Miami Beach, FL
  • West Hollywood, CA
—from the National Organization on Disability’s 2004 Accessible America Award

A “curb cut” ramp makes sidewalks wheelchair-accessible
"Curb cuts" enhance sidewalk
accessibility for wheelchair users.

A passenger enters a city bus on a wheelchair via an electric ramp.
Greg Smith boards a
wheelchair-accessible bus in
Washington, D.C.

Living Independently:
A Center for Independent
Living Profile

Located in Gallatin, Missouri, Access II Independent Living is one example of a Center for Independent Living. Among the services it provides for disabled individuals are:
  • A resource library and free Internet access
  • Training courses such as budget management and how to deal with disability-related discrimination
  • Peer counseling that matches people with disabilities to work with others with disabilities in their community
  • Staff members provide advocacy, working to obtain support services and greater accessibility in the community
  • A lift-equipped van is available for use and transportation
  • People with disabilities can receive up to 42 hours of personal assistance services per week by trained attendants who are interviewed, hired and managed by the disabled client

“Independent Living is a philosophy and a movement of people with disabilities who work for self-determination, equal opportunities and self-respect.”
—Adolf Ratzka, the Independent Living Institute

For many disabled Americans, including ON A ROLL’s Greg Smith, living independently can be an aspiration as well as a challenge. Started by disability rights activists, the Independent Living movement aims to achieve goals that make it possible for disabled Americans to live on their own—and on their own terms.

Access to Basic Services

Based on the idea that people with disabilities should be in control of the support services that permit them to live independently, the movement advocates for accessible and affordable basic services such as housing, healthcare and transportation.

Finding safe, affordable and accessible housing can be a significant challenge for many disabled Americans. The Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A.) mandates that businesses, workplaces, government offices and public services provide accommodations for the disabled. But for many disabled Americans, access to one’s own living quarters can be lacking.

Recent demands for housing “visitability” emphasize how inclusive design can be beneficial to all Americans—not only the disabled. As the National Organization for the Disabled states, “Housing that is accessible, attractive, affordable, and which welcomes disabled and aging Americans is an integral part of healthy, sustainable communities.” Although visitability does not guarantee total access, it allows people with disabilities to enter the first floor of a home—as well as its rooms and bathrooms—without having to be lifted up. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has worked with architects and disability rights advocates to develop accessibility design strategies, and several U.S. cities, including Chicago, Austin and Atlanta, have adopted visitability ordinances for housing built with public funds. The 1968 Fair Housing Act also requires that covered multi-family dwellings contain wheelchair- and disabled-accessible pathways and common-use areas, such as parking lots, mailrooms and laundry rooms.

Another major obstacle towards independent living is inadequate or inaccessible transportation, making it difficult for many disabled Americans to get to work, school or perform other tasks that are essential to daily life. As seen in ON A ROLL, Greg Smith found it difficult to even find a wheelchair-accessible taxicab to take him to an event honoring the A.D.A. According to a NOD/Harris 2000 Survey of Americans with Disabilities, 30 percent of Americans with disabilities have a problem with inadequate transportation, compared to only ten percent of Americans without disabilities.

Some progress has been made toward accessible transportation in the U.S. in recent years. For example, in April 2004, disability advocates in New York City called for an increase in the number of wheelchair-accessible taxicabs. Out of the 12,000-plus taxicabs in New York City, only five were wheelchair accessible. The city claims that it will expand its fleet of accessible cabs to nearly 1,000 over the next three years.

Centers for Independent Living

Another hallmark of the Independent Living movement are Centers for Independent Living, or CILs. These non-profit organizations provide services to maximize the independence of individuals with disabilities as well as their access to the communities in which they live. CILs are funded publicly by such sources as the U.S. Department of Education Rehabilitation Services Division—an agency that finances more than 3,000 independent living centers for Americans with disabilities.

The first CIL was formed in Berkeley, CA in 1972 by a group of students with disabilities. Boston and Houston soon followed suit, and the 1978 Rehabilitation Act passed federal legislation to provide funding for CILs. CILs differ significantly from other services agencies because they are directed and staffed by disabled people and their advocates, thus emphasizing self-control by people with disabilities: those who best know which services people with disabilities need in order to live independently are disabled people themselves.

CILs work to empower the disabled by providing a host of services, including advocacy and skills training and peer counseling. Developed by statewide networks called Independent Living Programs, CILs also work with local governments and employers to open and facilitate employment opportunities. Currently, there are CILs located in every U.S. state.


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