Yes, the Penguin Project Is Ableist.

This Fall, the Penguin Project is coming to Muskegon. Local children and young adults with disabilities will be cast in a production of the musical “Annie, Jr.” that will run October 14 and 15, 2017 at the Frauenthal.

The Penguin Project describes itself as follows:

“The Penguin Project is a musical theater production that casts children and young adults with disabilities in all roles. All will sing, dance and act in the show. Those individuals (Artists) will get assistance from on-stage peers (Mentors). Who can participate? Artists are children and young adults (ages 10-22) with disabilities. Including (but not limited to) Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, visual impairment, hearing impairment and neurological disorders. Mentors are children and young adults (ages 10-22) who do not have disabilities. They will be matched with an artist of similar age and the two will work side-by-side.”

What is the reason that a person with a disability cannot be a mentor?

The disabled actors will be matched with “mentors,” who are specifically defined as non-disabled people. There is only one reason that people with disabilities cannot be a mentor: ableism.

The Penguin Project defeats its own goal by teaching children with disabilities that non-disabled people are their superiors, not their equals. They are being allowed to participate in an activity as long as they accept their role as a recipient of charity needing to be mentored by non-disabled people. That’s not what we want our kids to learn.

Exactly what is the goal of matching disabled people with non-disabled “mentors”? What do non-disabled people have to offer in this context? If this were a reciprocal relationship meant to decrease segregation, it would be described as a peer-to-peer relationship. What qualifies the non-disabled mentor? Not professional theater experience. Not experience successfully navigating the world with a disability. Simply the virtue of being non-disabled.

Text: It's called the Penguin Project because penguins can’t fly. Get it? Image: A confused penguin with a speech bubble that says "I use my wings for swimming and diving. I don’t need to change to meet your arbitrary definition of success.” #saynotoableismFurthermore, the Penguin Project employs ableist messaging to achieve its goal. It’s called the Penguin Project because, “Our penguins may not be able to fly, but that does not prevent their spirits from soaring.” That’s the kind of stuff that makes the disability community want to puke.

Why are children and young adults with disabilities who wish to participate in theater not being served in integrated programs?

We must stop using people with disabilities as props for charity and inspiration porn. The hallmark of these activities is that they are performed for the benefit of the “helper,” not the recipient, and always treat the disabled person as a prop.

Our youth, both with and without disabilities, are absorbing these messages:

  • people with disabilities are inferior to non-disabled people
  • disabled people belong in segregated programs
  • people with disabilities need charity
  • disabled people “have very few friends and limited social opportunities” (per

The Penguin Project is brought to us by No More Sidelines, which also engages in segregated programs that rely heavily on ableist stereotypes. We urge everyone who supports disability rights to end support for segregated programming and embrace full integration of people with disabilities in our community.

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Harm and the Well-Intended Ableist

By Darma Canter

While we listened to 3 of Disability Network West Michigan – Newaygo staff members talk about their work, I heard some things that were interesting and very encouraging about supporting disability rights in court and independent living. We just got the highlights but I’m open to acknowledging good work.

Disability Network West Michigan Open Meeting Notice for the May 23 Board Meeting says "public input welcome"As the Board and audience were mingling, DNWM staff member Ada Linderman approached me and said, “You’re doing so much harm.” She exhaled and continued, “You’re not the disability community.”

I tried to ease into a conversation but she was moving quickly away. I guess Ada and I disagree about what is more harmful to the disability community: consumers speaking for ourselves and our disabled peers, or non-disabled program professionals (with good intentions) assuming they know what people with disabilities need and taking public dollars to give it to them with or without their consent.  Continue reading

Appointment of New Executive Director Unveils Widespread Dysfunction and Abuse of Public Funds at Disability Network West Michigan

In October of 2014, advocates learned after considerable effort that Disability Network West Michigan had begun the search for a new Executive Director. We approached DNWM (the Muskegon Center for Independent Living) with educational materials and offered to help them revise the position description to include experience with Independent Living or the disability rights movement. They revised the position description, but then we received several responses letting us know that we are unwelcome to voice our opinion on the matter further, including the following response from John Wahlberg (President at that time):

“Please do not misunderstand my position in your quest for who knows what. No invitation for dialogue was extended beyond the allotted 5 minutes of public comment time at the start of our monthly board meetings.” – John Wahlberg

We prepared to speak at the next Board meeting. The November meeting was closed to the public after we RSVPed, so our first chance to speak came in December 2015. When we finished speaking, the departing Executive Director asked us to leave so that they could hold the meeting privately. We refused and the meeting continued. Our hearts sank when they introduced their new Executive Director.  Continue reading

Consumer Control Principles in Independent Living


Consumer control in independent living centers means having a governing body comprised of at least 51 percent of its membership with people with disabilities. It means having people with disabilities in key management roles. It means having direct service staff with disabilities who work with consumers to define their own needs, on their own terms, and with their own solutions. It means having people with disabilities in support and clerical staff positions. It means involving volunteers with disabilities in the center’s daily operations. It means that stakeholders in the process — people with disabilities — play significant roles in deciding the issues and methods for advocacy efforts.

The principle of consumer control recognizes that people with disabilities should control their own destiny. It ensures their full control over the direction, composition, and operation of the organization that serves them. The principle of consumer control is translated into organizational policies by the board of directors and operationalized into practice by the management and staff of the center. This translation of consumer control principles into consistent, effective organizational practices results in the exercise of power by consumers over the center and its services, and contributes to its influence in the community it serves.

The practical applications of the consumer control principle must be flexible if services and advocacy efforts are to represent and respond to the varying interests and diversity among consumers in the communities served by the ILC. Across the country, independent living centers reflect wide diversity in practice while adhering to the principle of consumer control.  Continue reading

Illegal Actions Taken by the Disability Network West Michigan Board of Directors (In 2015 Alone)

The six remaining members of the Disability Network West Michigan (Muskegon CIL) Board of Directors have violated their fiduciary duties, their state contract, and state and federal law in the following ways:

  • Refusal to provide 2014 990 (IRS Form for non-profits)
  • Refusal to provide original application for tax exempt status
  • Refusal to provide accurate and honest list of Board members
  • Refusal to comply with Michigan’s Open Meetings Act (Sunshine Law)
  • Refusal to acknowledge obligation under FIOA (despite 98% public funding)

Doctor LOL Cat Says I'm Afraid Its Ableism and Advocacy Is the Only CureWillful misconduct is any action undertaken by a non-profit’s Board after it has been informed that it is operating outside its own bylaws. Disability Network West Michigan:

  • Is operating with less than the required number of Board members (6/9)
  • Does not have the required number of people with significant disabilities on their Board (3/9)
  • Does not have a Board that is cross-disability or community-based, as required by the Rehabilitation Act
  • Does not properly train staff and Board members in Independent Living
  • Does not hold Board meetings that are “generally open to the public” as required by their state contract

Disability Network West Michigan cannot legally sign contracts while in violation of its own bylaws, nor is willful misconduct covered by standard Directors & Officers Liability Insurance.

We ask that supporters of disability rights in Muskegon withhold support to this organization until the Board sees fit to follow the law, reengages the disability community, and commits to building a real Center for Independent Living in Muskegon.  Continue reading

Regarding the Ideology of Consumer-Control: A Primer for Disability Network West Michigan Board and Staff

Disability Network West Michigan:

Disability Network West Michigan: Follow the Law! CIL = 51% / Consumer Control Now / Nothing About Us Without Us / Disability Rights in MKG

Please allow me to assist you with understanding “significant disability” as a term used in the Rehabilitation Act. What distinguishes eligibility in Vocational Rehabilitation and Independent Living from just a medical diagnosis is the impact of the condition. Determination has nothing to do with a medical diagnosis. Diagnosis is irrelevant because it provides no information about the way a particular health condition affects the individual’s independence in self-care, education / employment, or access to the benefits of society.  Continue reading

Must Watch: Michigan’s Once Proud and Powerful Independent Living Movement

This video contains powerful footage of The EVENT, a Congress of People with Disabilities in Michigan in 1991. This video shows clearly that Michigan’s Independent Living Movement was once a mighty force to be reckoned with.

Independent Living was created by and led by people with significant disabilities. Look at the disabilities represented in the crowd and on the stage. You won’t have any trouble determining who they are and who they advocate for. This is a picture of the cross-disability rights movement based on a shared experience. As Marcia Moers says, “A mighty sea of faces marching with one thunderous voice”.

And after you watch the video, ask yourself who speaks for people with disabilities today? Unfortunately, all too often in Michigan, it’s non-disabled “professionals” with no connection to the passion that fuels our Movement, and the Muskegon disability community is suffering for it. Twenty four years after The EVENT, our Center for Independent Living is wildly out of compliance with the Rehabilitation Act and we have witnessed absolutely no change in employment, housing, or meaningful independence and autonomy for individuals with significant disabilities.

We call on Disability Network West Michigan to reengage with the disability community and implement consumer control – the foundation of Independent Living philosophy – at all levels of the organization!