2022 Marks the 50th Anniversary of the Independent Living Movement

Published January 5, 2022

Although the history of the Independent Living Movement can be traced back as early as the 1850s, it was in the 1960s, as the process of deinstitutionalization swept through the United States, that persons with disabilities in the United States were freed from involuntary detainment in places like nursing homes, institutions, and special care facilities. As a result of deinstitutionalization, people with disabilities were given the opportunity to live their lives independently and free of confinement, giving birth to the Independent Living Movement and Independent Living Philosophy. 

Not to be confused with the concept of independent living that is common vernacular in elder care, the Independent Living Movement is a philosophy that, according to the National Council for Independent Living, is "founded in the belief that people with disabilities, regardless of form, have a common history and a shared struggle, that we are a community and a culture that will advance further banded together politically." 

The Independent Living Philosophy is the idea that people with disabilities know what is in their own best interest. The phrase "nothing about us without us," originally attributed to Polish politics in the 16th century, became synonymous with disability activism in the 1990s and is now viewed as a core concept in disability rights and independent living. 

The history, and struggle for, community-based care for disabled Americans is a long and winding road. One key set of players on that landscape is the 403 Centers for Independent Living registered with the National Council for Independent Living (NCIL).

1972: the first Center for Independent Living is founded

According to The Center for Independent Living, Inc. (The CIL), the first Center for Independent Living was founded in Berkley, California in 1972. The CIL records the center's history: 

"The Center for Independent Living, Inc. (The CIL) emerged from the independent living movement of the 1960s as a powerful social catalyst on the University of California at Berkeley campus. There, Ed Roberts, Hale Zukas, and Jan McEwan Brown joined forces to lead a movement that made the full academic and social life of the university accessible to all. In 1972, these students and community members joined together to form The Center for Independent Living, Inc.

From 1975 to 2011, The CIL headquarters were located near the UC Berkeley campus on 2539 Telegraph Avenue. There, we provided services for people with disabilities that included wheelchair repair, assistance finding accessible and affordable housing, and vocational training. The CIL also hosted the first national conference on independent living in 1975. Our peer-based services were so successful that today The CIL serves as a model for roughly 400 independent living centers nationwide, as well as similar programs in 20 countries."

The mission of these centers derives from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The amended definition, in law, is “ . . . a consumer-controlled, community-based, cross-disability, a nonresidential private nonprofit agency that is designed and operated within a local community by individuals with disabilities and provides an array of independent living services.”

By law, the majority of staff and board members have disabilities, a rarity in North America where the many projects are delivered from a (well-meaning but non-disabled) point-of-view.

Celebrating 50 years of Independent Living

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Independent Living Movement in 2022, Accessibility.com will be writing about many of these centers, the rich history behind them, their services, roles in the community, and the common bonds that continue to unite their efforts throughout the country.

Independent living activists continue to work towards overcoming challenges and removing barriers to independent living in the disability community. While the core services of CILs are based on information, training, advocacy, and counseling, each Center for Independent Living shares a common mission in that they are consumer-controlled, community-based, cross-disability, nonresidential non-profits that are designed and operated within their local communities by individuals with disabilities. 

We look forward to sharing the rich histories of these centers, their diversity, and the types of services they offer to their communities. We'll share best practices in removing barriers to accessibility and discrimination. We'll learn more about interpreting services, victim advocacy, and Deaf empowerment. On the west coast, we'll visit the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers and learn about the Digital Access Project, a program that supports qualified participants to access high-speed internet and learn digital literacy skills. We'll learn about home care, advocacy in Boston, and Information and Referral in Cleveland. There is much to look forward to in 2022 and we cannot wait to celebrate independent living with you! 

Learn more about Independent Living in your area

Trying to find your local center? Independent Living Research Utilization (ILRU), based in Houston, Texas, provides a searchable database of registered CILs in the U.S. The list also includes those in Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands, along with resources for those in charge of maintaining the movement.

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