Years ago, I recounted an experience I had in my book, "Interdependence: The Route to Community" (1991). It related to a community outing of 6 people with disabilities I observed at a local McDonalds in 1989. As the story went, I had taken my children to McDonalds and while we were sitting with our meals, an obvious group of folks with disabilities, probably from a local group home, made their way into McDonalds. They had 2 staff that were overseeing them and it was clear who was whom. The folks with disabilities were dressed in ways that were culturally inappropriate, either too large, or small, or clearly mismatched clothing.
The staff sat these folks down, not far from where we were sitting and proceeded to get their food orders. Then, one staff member went to fill the orders as the other kept watch over the "clients." It was all so odd and out of place and I noticed other people noticing. After they finished their meal they were marched out to a large van in the parking lot with writing on the door that spoke of the agency that served them. I remember there were balloons and a smiley face in the logo.
I recounted this story in my book as an example of how community outings can message some wrong things, especially when the goals for such outings is to promote community inclusion. I subsequently spoke often of this experience in workshops to suggest alternate strategies and approaches to inclusion and full community participation. As change agents we need to understand the powerful external message of our work.
Interestingly enough just the other day, my wife and I went to our local Cracker Barrel for breakfast and after our meal, I sat on porch rocker while she shopped a bit in their store. While sitting in the sun, observing people come and go, I noticed a nicely appointed SUV pull into a handicap spot. There were 3 folks in the vehicle, and I thought nothing of it. Then slowly I noticed that the driver got out to help the other 2 passengers. They were all nicely dressed and headed into the restaurant. A few minutes later, another SUV pulled into the lot, and as these 3 folks got out, I began to realize that these must be folks who receive residential supports, out for morning breakfast.
I couldn't help thinking back to that experience in 1989 at the McDonalds to the experience I was observing right now. The differences were stark - no large van with signage, appropriate dress, folks in small increments where i couldn't tell staff from folks being supported. All of it so typical and blended into the community norms.
I smiled a bit and felt some sense of satisfaction that the messages of community inclusion can, in fact, happen. I don't know if these folks were even part of a service system, or if the van drivers were staff, or just friends enjoying a morning out. I was just happy that it was happening, and that no one noticed.