Recently I caught wind of the decision to change the name of the Community Access Program to Community Inclusion. As I think back on my years as a Community Access Specialist in Spokane, I can’t help but reflect on the meaning of true inclusion in our community and what true inclusivity looks like.
I remember my first day of inclusion work like it was yesterday. I was a young, idealistic, recent college graduate looking for meaningful work. My first day at the local community center felt like a big, clean breath of fresh air after months of uncertainty. Nothing I had found up until that point had quite aligned with my ideals and interests, and I felt like I had been holding my breath for quite some time. The way the job description wove together ‘access’ and ‘inclusion’ was unique and invigorating, as was the opportunity to make a tangible difference in my community. “This is it – this is exactly what I have been looking for,” were the words that echoed in my head on my way home that afternoon.
The job for me was not only a professional opportunity, but also something I could relate to on a personal level. Although I had been previously unaware of the compelling idea of inclusion as a vocation, I had been in the business of inclusion for quite some time. As the sibling to a younger brother heavily-affected in life by a disability label, I was able to look at inclusion as more than just an intangible concept to strive towards professionally.
To illustrate it, I could have instead pulled out a worn VHS tape and pointed the concept out to you more practically in the fabric of our childhood home. “There, that’s it. That’s the definition of inclusion,” I could have told anyone who cared to listen, as they would watch my sister and I orbiting dizzying circles around my brother in the home video footage; he lays on his back in the middle of the room, smiling, laughing, and engaged in the joyful chaos. My sister and I run far and wide, yet we always circle back. In those memories, my brother is the center of our play and our home. Inclusion was so very simple and unannounced in our youth.
As I began my new job back in those recent graduate days, I soon found that the concept of inclusion had become so much more convoluted in the context of adulthood. My sister and I were no longer spinning circles around my brother in the living room. He had in fact recently joined us in the strange adult world of looking past education towards whatever the rest of life is supposed to be. Consequently, the vibrant young-twenty-something spaces available to us, we soon found were difficult to navigate in the world of labels and diagnoses. This experience was not at all uncommon. Many of the people I met through my job as a Community Access Specialist were in a similar situation: looking back on childhood and wondering— where exactly do I belong?
In my job, I met brilliant people all around. I met people that included me in their world with an unmatched generosity. In the most clear or subtle ways, I was invited into so many people’s spaces, perspectives, and unique forms of communication. I had the privilege of working with colleagues who were enthusiastic about the basic right people should have to access community spaces. These were the kind of people who would strap themselves to a rocket if it meant making the moon accessible. It was a natural fit for me, and I am filled with gratitude for that experience.
Working together in the Community Inclusion Program (CA at the time), we had some clear and resounding successes. I remember the way an older man connected with the people at the farmer’s market where he volunteered—the way he came to life when contributing to a common goal. I remember when a younger man connected to his college-aged peers through dance; I also remember his boundless excitement the moment he was immersed in water after years that swimming had been unavailable to him. These successes filled me with the desire to get out there and make things happen every morning.
However, I now feel community inclusion can be so much more dynamic and effective than I ever originally dreamed. In fact, If I had the opportunity now to go back and give advice to that younger version of myself, I would challenge and encourage that young person to go even further—to seek out that deeper meaning of inclusion I knew with my siblings in my childhood home.
For me, the limitations I experienced began with never truly understanding the capacity of my position and the extent of its inclusive mission. I saw boundaries where I no longer see them. What I missed in those years was a deeper invitation to be something bold and unique and entirely beyond my concept of what a social services system could provide. At that time, I knew only the world of respite and direct support; yet, the skills I wish I had employed are more akin to those of an active agent of change, a networker, and a community organizer extraordinaire.
To believe fully and profoundly in inclusion and to embody it professionally, one must have the courage to be creative and dynamic. Working in community inclusion means getting outside of what is comfortable, outside of the important services that we already know and understand. It means we must find a way to cleverly interweave all the elements of life and service towards inclusion. It requires us to stand up, to listen deeply, and to ask for profound teamwork from others. It teaches us to research, to find community resources, and to have the humility to ask for assistance when we confront something outside of our expertise.
I found great meaning and accomplishment in my CI experience because I repeatedly asked myself an important question: what can I do to bring inclusion, meaning, and richness to the hours inside my influence as a service provider? Yet, I think there is a deeper question. Community inclusion should entail exploration and profound creativity. It means making the connections, seeking out support and collaboration, and advocating for a life that goes beyond the boundaries of a billing cycle. The question I want to ask is this: what can you do to ensure those in your community experience inclusion, meaning, and richness during every hour of life? What would it take for true inclusion to become typical, and how can you actively promote that?