“The history of the independent living movement comes from this philosophy: people with disabilities have the same rights, options, and choices as anybody else.” (www.mtstcil.org)
In May of this year, the CNMI’s Center for Living Independently (CLI) celebrated its 10th year anniversary of dedicated service to individuals with disabilities in the CNMI. In order to fully understand and appreciate the Independent Living concept, it is important to have a basic historical knowledge of the movement’s trials and tribulations.
Folks within the disability arena claimed that the Independent Living movement started as far back as the 1850s when folks with hearing impairments started organizing locally into groups to advocate for their rights. These groups eventually merged into the National Association of the Deaf in 1880. In the 1940s, groups such as the National Federation of the Blind, the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and The League of the Physically Handicapped were also formed thus advancing the advocacy network for folks with special needs. These groups’ shared purpose, regardless of the different types of disabilities they represent, was to eliminate barriers to their much-needed services. This was done by way of educating the community about disability issues in order to influence legal policies for better and accessible services. More groups were formed later through the years with the same intent and purpose—a better life! Nothing more, nothing less!
The Independent Living movement gained national notoriety in 1967 at the University of California in Berkeley when a student with a significant disability by the name of Ed Roberts and his colleagues started protesting and advocating for equal access and comprehensive services for students with disabilities. They were known as the “Rolling Quads,” and their protest was significant for it brought national attention to the independent living movement and their struggles for equal treatment and lack of services. These individuals were housed together in an infirmary, and as a direct result they developed a communal sense based on common struggles. Along with this new sense of community was the realization that they were an “oppressed minority” rather than “patients” in an infirmary. This newly realized view was and is still significant for it provided a legitimate shift in policies and services from the “medical model” to a “community based model.” Simply put, the idea is that people with disabilities were better off living in the community rather than in institutions across the country.
Finally in 1972, with a funding of $40,000 from the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), Ed Roberts and the “Rolling Quads” established the first Center for Independent Living in the nation in Berkeley, California. The center’s purpose was to provide independent living skills training to people with disabilities so they can live independently out in the community. This prompted the federal government in 1978 to amend the Rehabilitation Act to include Title VII, which for the very first time secured and provided funding for the independent living network. Today there are over 600 centers throughout the nation, including CNMI’s very own center. These centers provide an array of services for folks with special needs. These services are not limited to the core services, which are peer counseling, advocacy services, independent living skills training, and information and referral.
The CNMI’s own center wasn’t established until decades later in 2005 through sheer hard work and support from individuals within the local and federal government and members of our island community. The CNMI’s Center for Living Independently, or CLI as referred to locally, continues to thrive on endless support from volunteers and members from both the private and government sectors despite limited funds and manpower. The center’s two lone personnel along with volunteers from the Independent Living Group (ILG) are working very hard to meet the needs of our residents with special needs. The Independent Living movement continues to be an endless struggle for basic independent living rights. One way to insure continued positive outcome for our people with disabilities is to keep our island community members informed and aware of the movement’s ongoing challenges.
As advocates at NMPASI, we have won numerous cases over the rights of people with disabilities to be independent. But we still need the support of our island community as a whole in order for our folks with disabilities to Fully Live Independently!
For more information on independent living issues, please contact the Northern Marianas Protection and Advocacy Systems Inc. at (670) 235-7273/4 www.nmpasi.org, or contact the Center for Living Independently (CLI) directly at (670) 322-4303.
Jimmy G. Sablan
Northern Marianas Protection and Advocacy Systems Inc.