It’s easy to talk about inclusion. About making sure that every citizen in our town has equal rights, equal access to employment and housing, and feels like a welcome and engaged member of our community. In practice, it’s harder. Not because it’s not wanted but because ensuring that our town is a wonderful place to live for everyone requires compassion, forethought, effort and, yes, funding.
That’s why the work of Community Living Huntsville is important. I attended a Celebrating Inclusion Tour at their office last month to learn about the importance of inclusion and the challenges faced by those who work to achieve it.
Carolyn Misener described her experience and initial apprehensions about welcoming a woman with intellectual disabilities to her knitting group. “Would she fit in? Would we be able to communicate? How would it affect the other members of the group? Would she feel comfortable?” she said. “All of our apprehensions melted away after one session… She has become a valued member of our group. It’s experiences like this that make our community a better place to be.”
Inclusion can bring joy into the lives of everyone involved. If anything holds us back, it is just fear of the unknown, maybe fear of giving offence. When we participate and interact we learn that we are all just folks of different abilities.
Community Living Huntsville supports, serves, and advocates for approximately 200 adults and children in north Muskoka by promoting inclusion, supporting individual rights, and taking action to help people live independently, find employment or volunteer work, and make social connections.
“All of those supports are based on helping people have a good life as citizens and being included in all aspects of our community – really the same expectation that you and I have for our own lives,” said Cathy Stroud, Community Living’s Executive Director.
That degree of inclusion can be wildly successful. One of Huntsville’s inclusion success stories – one of many – is the way downtown merchants welcomed Donnie Eagles as not just an employee but as a friend and someone they watched out for, accepting him for who he was.
With supports from Community Living Huntsville, Eagles moved into his own apartment in downtown Huntsville after more than 25 years in institutions and group homes. “In the mid-90s he approached us for a job. Our philosophy is that everybody is capable of work. I knew I wasn’t going to get him to change the way he dressed or looked and they weren’t really conducive to employment,” said Stroud. “My job was to find the right match and link him to the kind of work where he could be accepted for who he was.” And she did. Eagles continued in that job for more than two decades, clearing Huntsville’s downtown streets of debris and snow and becoming a recognized character by locals and tourists alike.
“It was standing room only at his funeral (last year), this for a man who had no family, no friends and no supports when he moved here.” (Click here to read Doppler’s earlier story on Eagles’ downtown memorial.)
Sheldon Eaton hopes for that same degree of acceptance and since connecting with Community Living has made inroads into the life he dreams of. He shared that after leaving school at 16, able to only read simple words, he experienced social isolation and incurred significant debt due to what he called poor choices. He now lives in his own apartment, has a social network, is almost debt-free, and has become a presenter for the Language Project, a national initiative aimed at educating students on the use of respectful language. “It is important to me because of my experiences in school. It is important to educate people that words really can hurt.”
Sheldon read his lengthy presentation confidently, an indication of how far he’s come. His next goal: employment. “I am currently on the waitlist for supported independent programs for getting a job. I am really looking forward to exploring opportunities and finding that job that I am dreaming of.”
There are many inclusive employers in Huntsville and others who have been in the past, but there is still work to be done, said Stroud.
“We need for people to recognize that people with an intellectual disability have gifts and talents and skills to contribute to all aspects of our community. We need employers to consider people who have intellectual disabilities as viable job candidates,” she said.
“We need all people to extend invitations and to welcome people with intellectual disabilities to just have presence in community places, participating as ordinary citizens. We believe that Community Living Huntsville and the Huntsville community can do a better job to welcome people who live with the label of intellectual disability to be valued, included, contributing members of our community and ensuring that Huntsville is a stronger, richer and more vibrant community for us all to live in.”
One of the challenges Community Living faces – one shared by many community-oriented groups – is funding. There are people in our community who fall through the cracks, ones who could benefit from the support the group offers but who aren’t eligible for assistance under Ministry of Community and Social Services guidelines.
“You might think that the government funding takes care of all the needs of someone with an intellectual disability,” said Diane Lupton, Executive Assistant ad Community Living. “It does not. Sometimes people with disabilities only have paid support workers in their lives. Everyone needs the friendships that make our lives fuller, richer, and safer. People with intellectual disabilities need to have a presence in everyday community places, participating and contributing in activities as ordinary citizens. This is inclusion: when everyone feels a sense of belonging.”
Within five to 10 years, Stroud hopes that Community Living Huntsville will be able to support all people in our community who have an intellectual disability, including those who do not meet Ministry eligibility criteria. “If we could hire one more staff member without government funding we could help 10 to 15 people who might otherwise fall through the cracks.”
We want to be able to support everybody to have a good life and enjoy the same rights and freedoms that we have. To have the same expectations as you and I: to have a job, to have friendships, to have a decent place to live, and to have that sense of belonging that comes from being included and valued.
Cathy Stroud, Community Living Huntsville Executive Director
The best way to support Community Living is to help spread the word, said Lupton. Register for an upcoming Inclusion Tour and encourage your friends, family, and colleagues to do the same. The group will also take the tour on the road to present their stories for a business or community group — contact Diane Lupton for more information.
The most important message you can take away is that people are people first. “They need to be accepted for who they are and appreciated for their unique gifts, abilities and talents,” said Andrea Johnston, Manager: Quality and Community Development. “Our role now is to get community ready to embrace this philosophy (where it used to be trying to get people ready to ‘fit in’). We are all human together and we are a stronger community when we all belong.”