“Creaming” is a term coined by Ed Roberts, the Father of the Independent Living Movement. Roberts was famously told by vocational rehabilitation (the agency responsible for helping people with disabilities find employment) that he was “too disabled” to work. In response to this blatant discrimination, Ed Roberts started a revolution. He created the first Center for Independent Living, which sparked a nation-wide movement. In Independent Living, people with significant disabilities (consumers) have complete control over the decisions that affect their lives, including the management of Centers for Independent Living – community-based organizations that advance the rights of people with disabilities. Years later, Ed Roberts was appointed Director if California vocational rehabilitation – the very agency that had declared him unemployable.
Upon learning that people with severe disabilities received little treatment from the vocational rehabilitation centers, [Senator Allen] Cranston changed his mind about extending the [Vocational Rehabilitation Act]. He agreed with the disability activists who came before his subcommittee that the practice of “creaming,” that is, rehabilitating the people who were the least impaired and, therefore, stood a greater chance of being employed, constituted a problem. Cranston thought all disabled people should have a right to vocational rehabilitation, which included the right to question the authority of the rehabilitation experts who oversaw the vocational rehabilitation process. Therefore, he helped draft legislation that provided “due process for rehabilitation clients.” – Crippled Justice: The History of Modern Disability Policy in the Workplace, By Ruth O’Brien
All Centers for Independent Living are required to engage in affirmative action to hire, train, and promote people with significant disabilities. Centers for Independent Living are required to go beyond the 7% hiring goal for federal contractors: 51% of CIL staff (and specifically management) must be people with disabilities; 51% of their Boards must be people with significant disabilities. The process of creaming is a way to discriminate against consumers – the very people legislated to control a Center for Independent Living.
Ed Roberts would be rolling over in his grave to see Michigan’s Centers for Independent Living engaging in the very same discriminatory practices he founded the Independent Living Movement to combat.
When you arrive at a Center for Independent Living, you should see a vibrant community of people with all types of disabilities – volunteers, staff, and management – working together for to advance disability rights in their community. What you see when you arrive at one of Michigan’s Centers for Independent Living is much different: sterile offices filled with Certified Rehabilitation Counselors, Social Workers, former sheltered workshop managers, and clinical therapists. Many of Michigan’s Centers for Independent Living employ a token disabled person to give the appearance of consumer control, but that person quickly learns that they are welcome only as long as they are willing to conform to a culture of open hostility toward advocacy.
For years Disability Network West Michigan has been appointing sheltered workshop managers, group home owners, and vocational rehabilitation counselors to its Board and staff. Board and staff members are asked to identify any minor medical condition that could legitimize their positions. For example, after fourteen months of publicly identifying as non-disabled, the current Executive Director realized that she has dyslexia – after the state informed her that she needs to be disabled to keep her job. By reporting any minor medical condition as a disability to the federal government for the purpose of consumer control, Disability Network West Michigan is committing fraud with taxpayer dollars.
A common refrain among Michigan’s IL leadership is “We all have some type of disability!” That is an insult to Michiganders who experience obstacles, including discrimination, daily. The only time the leaders of Michigan’s Centers for Independent Living are disabled is on the report they submit to the state and federal governments. Their lives are otherwise unchanged.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act covers any citizen experiencing disability-based discrimination, expanding the definition of disability (for the purpose of consumer control in CILs) to cover any health or medical problem is an insult to people with significant disabilities who live with the social, environmental, and legal consequences of disability daily.
Michigan CILs are now working directly for vocational rehabilitation. CIL staffs and Boards are comprised of former and current vocational rehabilitation counselors who engage in the same discriminatory practices Ed Roberts taught us to rebel against. Ed Roberts taught us that we have a right to question the authority of the rehabilitation experts. Yet Michigan’s Centers for Independent Living continue to discriminate, retaliate, and degrade any consumers who question their authority.
We have been told by our own Center for Independent Living that there is no such thing as the disability community; that we do not have the power to create change; and that we have no right to even the most basic information about how Muskegon’s Center for Independent Living operates. What we see in Michigan is the opposite of Independent Living. It’s outrageous that taxpayer dollars continue to flow to organizations that are engaged in activities that directly contradict their mission.
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Peer Action Alliance is a community of people with disabilities and their allies based on peer support, interdependence, and networks of peer led learning. We promote IL philosophy and advocate for consumer control in Centers for Independent Living (CILs) in Michigan. Centers for Independent Living are required by law to be staffed, led, and directed by a majority of persons with significant disabilities. We believe that when Disability Network West Michigan (Muskegon CIL) follows the law by implementing consumer control at the staff and Board levels, we will, together, be able to create a fully functioning Center for Independent Living that that is fully integrated with and able to represent and address the needs of the Muskegon disability community.