On Ed Roberts & Creaming in Michigan’s Independent Living Program

Cream. Verb. To advance individuals with the least significant disabilities in order to create the illusion of consumer control without having to do the hard work of affirmative action, workplace accommodation, and confronting ableism in our own spaces.

“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

Affirmative Action. Noun. An action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination, especially in relation to employment or education; positive discrimination.

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.

Tokenism. Noun. The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of equality within a workforce.

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.

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.

7 thoughts on “On Ed Roberts & Creaming in Michigan’s Independent Living Program

  1. I just got back from the Berkeley CIL. Yes, the one started by Ed Roberts. I am yet to blog about the experience. It left me feeling deflated. I think the IL movement as it once was is dying. Ed Roberts would be pissed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I get to visit a lot of centers, and meet a lot of people who work for CILs or SILCs or are on the board of one. I see centers that are “service providers” and, in contrast, centers that are the meeting place of the “disability community”, and there is a big difference between these two very different approaches to IL.

    Because we (CILs) receive federal and sometimes state funding, we are required by that funding to look a certain way, to provide specific core services, to meet specific requirements of consumer control. Those organizations that focus on the specifics of service delivery are in danger of staff and board claiming some minor and controlled diagnosis to qualify as a consumer, and missing the point. The word CENTER was used very intentionally from the beginning because a CIL is to be the CENTER of the disability community. Peer Counseling is a crucial element of all centers because people who have a disability and have learned to navigate their lives have something important to share with other people with disabilities who are just beginning to take control of their own lives. If we are all gathering together then Peer Counseling (or Peer Support) is the natural sharing between people who share an aspect of life as persons with disabilities. It was not “group” led by staff in the beginning. It was and should still be grassroots liberation at its best. Another core service, Advocacy, is the core of changing the world to be more accessible.

    The CIL’s board must be made of of the same people who are eligible to receive this and the other core services plus the additional services allowed in the Rehab Act. More than 50% of SILC members must be people with disabilities who don’t work for the state or a CIL. If you are recruiting these members and ever find yourself asking, “Don’t you have some disability of some kind?” (talking a board or staff member into claiming a disability) your CIL or SILC is missing the point.

    Some of this has happened because the bright, mainstreamed, professional adults with disabilities never darken the door of a CIL. Unless you have an active youth network, those individuals don’t know about our history in disability rights. They don’t yet see that they can be a part of the disability community and contribute their experience and independence to benefit all of us.

    I think our hope of getting IL off of life support lies in our youth, who come together regardless of whether or not they have an IEP or other disability related services while in school. They are excited to learn about disability rights and culture. We must encourage them to exert their leadership on SILCs and as staff and board member of CILs, and to re-frame Centers as a place where as a culture all people with disabilities can gather, learn from each other, plan together for the community, and go forth to change the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In the early 1990s Michigan held a Congress of People with Disabilities. Thousands of individuals gathered at the capitol with the CILs and others we felt like “a mighty voice.” Unfortunately, the democratic nature of community has been replaced by hierarchy; the rank and file consumers that made IL mighty is now a recipient rather than a participant.


  4. Pingback: Consumer Control? Disability Community? – IL-NET TA

  5. Not only are our CILS out of control. So is our SILC. None even follow basic required laws either.
    Note: the following as but one example:
    November 16 2016 to SILC on OMA Standing Committees

    Paul Joseph Harczz, Jr.

    1365 E. Mt. Morris Rd.

    Mt. Morris, MI 48458



    Re: MISILC and Open Meetings Act


    Rodney Craig, Executive Director, Michigan Statewide Independent Living Council

    Robin Bennett, Chair MISILC

    (Via e-mail)

    Dear Mr. Craig and Ms. Bennett,

    I am writing you today as the heads of a public entity in which the Michigan Open Meetings Act is applicable and, in fact following it is an obligation
    as well under the Rehabilitation Act. I have told you and prior Chair Ms. Gravetti that standing committees, must follow the Michigan Open Meetings Act
    and that the public must be given notice just as must be done at SILC quarterly Board meetings. Moreover, in many of these committees in the past you’ve
    made final determinations without putting them before the entire SILC. This cannot continue to stand for MISILC is a public entity and cannot continue
    to conduct business in secret without public involvement or even knowledge of actions with public funds.

    Please refer to an attorny general’s opinion and cited case law on the matter after my signature line. And remedy the situation by following the Open Meetings


    Paul Joseph Harcz, Jr.

    Cc: ACL/ILA

    Cc: several








    Application of open meetings act to county board of commissioners standing committee

    A meeting of a standing committee of a county board of commissioners, composed of less than a quorum of the full board, is subject to the Open Meetings

    Act when the committee is effectively authorized to determine whether items of county business will or will not be referred for action by the full board.

    Opinion No. 7000

    December 1, 1998

    Mr. John L. Livesay

    Branch County Prosecuting Attorney

    Branch County Courthouse

    Coldwater, MI 49036

    You have asked whether a meeting of a standing committee of a county board of commissioners, composed of less than a quorum of the full board, is subject

    to the Open Meetings Act, 1976 PA 267, MCL 15.261 et seq; MSA 4.1800(11) et seq, when the committee is effectively authorized to determine whether items

    of county business will or will not be referred for action by the full board.

    Information supplied with your request indicates that a county board of commissioners, through adoption of a rule, established four standing committees,


    each consisting of less than a quorum of the full board of commissioners. You describe the operation of these committees as follows:

    Block quote start

    If an issue is brought to a committee by a department head, elected official, or judge and the committee determines that supportive action should be taken,

    the committee will make a recommendation to the full board at the next board meeting. It is usually couched in terms similar to the following: “The committee

    recommends and I so move that . . .” Such recommendations are reflected in the committee minutes. If the committee does not approve of what action may

    be desired by the particular department (for example), that fact may be reflected in the committee minutes that a discussion was had, and the matter would

    go no further. There would be no unfavorable recommendation to the full board and no action taken by the full board. A review of commissioner committee

    minutes illustrates that routinely matters are discussed at committee meetings that end with the committee making a decision that no action will be taken.

    Though the fact that the matter was discussed may appear in the committee minutes, no discussion or action will be subsequently taken by the full board.

    The committee minutes will not reflect that an unfavorable recommendation was made to the full board. The matter will simply die in committee.

    It can probably fairly be said that the only time any matter goes to the full board for discussion and/or final decision is if the committee is “recommending”

    that some positive action be taken by the board. A negative action or decision to take no action would be made by the committee. . . . The full board would

    have no discussion on the matter and would take no vote and make no decision on the issue.

    Block quote end

    The Open Meetings Act (OMA) requires, subject to limited exceptions, that a meeting of a public body must be open to the public and is subject to specified

    notice and record-keeping requirements. Section 3(1); OAG, 1981-1982, No 6053, p 616 (April 13, 1982). Section 2(a) of the OMA defines the term “public

    body” as:

    Block quote start

    [A]ny state or local legislative or governing body, including a board, commission, committee, subcommittee, authority, or council, which is empowered by

    state constitution, statute, charter, ordinance, resolution or rule to exercise governmental or proprietary authority or perform a governmental or proprietary

    function, or a lessee thereof performing an essential public purpose and function pursuant to the lease agreement.

    Block quote end

    (Emphasis added.)

    OAG, 1977-1978, No 5183, p 21, 40 (March 8, 1977), reviewed this definition, together with the legislative history of the OMA, and concluded that the Act

    does not apply to committees and subcommittees composed of less than a quorum of the full public body if they “are merely advisory or only capable of making

    ‘recommendations concerning the exercise of governmental authority.'” Where a committee or subcommittee, however, is empowered to act on matters in such

    a fashion as to deprive the full body of the opportunity to vote on the matter, the committee’s decision “is an exercise of governmental authority which

    effectuates public policy,” and the committee proceedings are therefore subject to the OMA. OAG, 1977-1978, No 5222, p 216, 217-218 (September 1, 1977).

    This latter point is underscored by the recent decision of the Michigan Court of Appeals in Schmiedicke v Clare School Bd, 228 Mich App 259, 261; 577 NW2d

    706 (1998). In that case, a local school board established a Personnel and Policy Committee (PPC) and delegated to that committee “the task of reviewing

    whether the school district should retain its current method for evaluating school administrators and whether the length of administrator contracts should

    be changed.” The committee thereafter met in private and ultimately recommended no change in the school district’s existing policies. After receiving the

    committee’s report, the full school board took no action, effectively adopting the committee’s recommendation. The court concluded that, under these facts,

    the committee was subject to the OMA and had violated that Act by meeting in private. The court reached this conclusion despite the fact that the school

    board had apparently not intended to delegate actual decision-making authority to the committee:

    Block quote start

    Testimony at trial, although equivocal, indicated that defendant school board did not intend to delegate final decision-making authority to the PPC. However,

    there was testimony by a school board member that, because the PPC recommended no change with respect to either policy presented to it for review, defendant

    school board believed that it did not have to take any action on the PPC’s recommendation. In other words, by failing to vote, defendant school board “affirmed”

    the PPC’s recommendation to leave intact the current methods for evaluating administrators and the length of administrator’s contracts. Thus, at the April

    18, 1994, meeting, defendant school board renewed each administrator’s contract for two terms in accordance with its current policy.

    The primary purpose of the OMA is to ensure that public entities conduct all their decision-making activities in open meetings and not simply hold open

    meetings where they rubber-stamp decisions that were previously made behind closed doors. See Booth Newspapers, [Inc v Univ of Michigan Bd of Regents,

    444 Mich 211, 222;] 507 NW2d 422 [1933]; Wexford Co Prosecutor v Pranger, 83 Mich App 197, 204; 268 NW2d 344 (1978). Here, defendant school board’s referral

    to the PPC for a recommendation was a delegation of authority to perform a governmental function. The focus of the inquiry is the authority delegated to

    the PPC, not the authority it exercised. The PPC failed to openly deliberate on the governmental function that the defendant school board had delegated

    to it. Subsequently, the defendant school board adopted the PPC’s recommendation. The defendant school board’s adoption of the recommendation effectively

    foreclosed any involvement by members of the public and essentially meant that the decision made by the PPC at a closed meeting was a fait accompli. Booth

    Newspapers, supra at 229. Consequently, the PPC made closed-session deliberations and decisions in violation of the OMA.

    Block quote end

    228 Mich App 263-264.

    These authorities are directly applicable to your question. According to the facts provided with your inquiry, matters referred to the referenced standing

    committees reach the full board of commissioners only if the committee makes a positive recommendation to the board; if the committee makes an unfavorable

    recommendation, the matter never reaches the board. Thus, each of these standing committees effectively exercises the authority to preclude various matters

    from reaching the full board for deliberation and decision. Under these circumstances, the committees are not merely advisory but instead are exercising

    governmental authority which effectuates public policy and are, therefore, subject to the requirements of the OMA. OAG, 1977-1978, No 5222, supra, at 218.

    It is my opinion, therefore, that a meeting of a standing committee of a county board of commissioners, composed of less than a quorum of the full board,

    is subject to the Open Meetings Act when the committee is effectively authorized to determine whether items of county business will or will not be referred

    for action by the full board.


    Attorney General

    1 The standing committees and their duties include the following: The Ways and Means Committee (prepares a county budget and protects the interests of county

    citizens in all matters pertaining to finance); Personnel Committee (authorized to “approve or disapprove all bills to be paid by the county”); Courts

    and Public Safety Committee (acts as a liaison between the executive, judicial and legislative offices in the county); and the House Committee (advises

    and assists various offices in the development of policy).


    State of Michigan, Department of Attorney General


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