What has changed in Michigan IL services over the
last twenty-five years?
by Darma J. Canter
Money and the decisions that flow from putting an entity’s business success over the well-being of the disabled they are contracted to serve. Large increases in core funding with contracted service relationships with other publicly funded entities has elevated Michigan Centers for Independent Living (CILs) and their administrators to CEOs with soaring compensation packages. Between 2008 and 2017, Michigan households with a working-age disabled member had a 25% increase in income, $31,000 to $41,000. In 2017 28% of disabled in Michigan lived in poverty. A CIL Director’s salary changed from $50,000 to $90,000 in 2019, nearly 200%, in comparison to disabled income. It represents the elevation of IL leaders to a position superior to the consumers they serve and suggests their voice is not our voice.
Non-disabled professionals have taken over leadership in Michigan’s Independent Living (IL) Program and re-oriented Centers to a corporate model focusing on expanded revenues and partnerships with the systems that segregate and exploit the disabled. Many CILs present themselves as independent, private corporations and assert they are not subject to transparency laws like the Open Meetings Act and FOIA, even when they are 90-98% funded with taxpayer dollars. The Client Assistance Program provider, Michigan Protection & Advocacy Services, has refused to pursue consumer complaints about IL services and cannot or will not provide information about IL grievances and appeals. IL consumer rights processes have nullified. This must be corrected and our rights restored.
Michigan Centers grew out of the local disability community and for many years staff and volunteers advocated for access and inclusion. The Center and staff were allied with disabled community members and shared a vision of social and political change. Over time, Michigan Centers were revised from organizations with boards elected from the membership to boards of appointed directors with their connections to service agencies and influence in the political process; the Centers disengaged from the disability community and enrolled in the local Chamber of Commerce. One day I looked up and our Centers for Independent Living were paying dues to the Association of Rehabilitation Organizations, which specifically lobbies for sheltered workshops.
As Michigan’s IL Network has mutated from a leader in disability empowerment and advocacy to a corporation providing services, our Centers assumed their place alongside Goodwill, Peckham, AFCs, MRS, CMH, and Special Ed. How many programs, case managers, guardians, and payees does a disabled youth need to be self-determined?
Independent Living philosophy assumes the right of every disabled person to be autonomous decision makers. Independence doesn’t mean I don’t need services and supports, but it does mean I am the person with the rewards or consequences of my actions. I will always need some level of assistance and connections to public programs and their agents, which interferes with my independence and autonomy. It has always been easier, faster, cheaper to let the agents act on my behalf, which separates me from the satisfaction and pride of accomplishment as well as the opportunity to learn from my mistakes. Too many youth with significant disabilities are taught to be cooperative, compliant and grateful; and are in fact denied access to all the incentives for growth and independence.
Michigan consumers must reform the IL Network and restore consumer-control, rooted in the local disability community’s values and priorities, and re-imagine the IL service model of peer-delivered self-help and empowerment.
Please read and comment to build a common language and consensus.