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Intentional Inclusion: L’Arche GWDC on a Special Olympics Panel

A group sits around a conference table listening to a woman speak

The conference room was quiet in the offices of the Special Olympics in Washington, DC, as everyone around the table listened to Laurie describe her experiences at L’Arche GWDC. Laurie is a core member (adult with intellectual disabilities) at L’Arche where, she explained, everyone can be themselves and live as a family.

L’Arche GWDC was invited by the Special Olympics to speak on their webinar on self-advocates entitled “Intentional inclusion of people with Intellectual Disabilities.” Laurie, Luke, and Eva-Elizabeth were part of the expert panel with fellow panelists from the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and The Arc of the United States. They discussed tips for finding self-advocates and integrating meaningful inclusion into organizations and projects.

From that discussion came strategies, stories, insight, and laughter as well as 6 major pieces of advice. Read on for ways to be more inclusive or watch the webinar recording!

Six Things to Keep in Mind for
Intentional Inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities

1. Plan
Being deliberate is key. “[Intentional] Inclusion doesn’t happen if you don’t do it on purpose,” as Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network explained. Get clarity on your intentions. Why does it matter to you and your organization to be inclusive? Second, include people with intellectual disabilities from the beginning of your projects – don’t just bring them in at the end to “sign off” on your work. Weave inclusion into your organization or activity from the very start.

2. Include multiple and diverse voices of people with intellectual disabilities
Make sure you’re not just checking a box or bringing someone onboard as a “token”: include more than one person with intellectual disabilities and include them throughout the process (see above). Ensure that you have diverse voices as much as possible. As Laurie said, people are different with “different styles” and need space to follow their hearts and be themselves.

3. Build relationships
Luke explained that L’Arche is founded on relationships: “the recognition that we need and accept the other” as well as learning from one another and appreciating each other’s gifts. “Inclusion isn’t always easy,” he said. “…But one of the central parts of L’Arche is relationship and relationships can be easy.” He gave examples of making a more inclusive society “one heart at a time” by engaging with everyone from neighbors to Uber drivers with people with intellectual disabilities at the core of activities and relationships.

Eva-Elizabeth pointed out that vulnerability in relationships is also key and Laurie spoke about how relationships at L’Arche are “like a family.”

Two women and a man sit at a conference table and smile for the camera
Laurie, Eva-Elizabeth, and Luke at the Special Olympics office.

4. Decision-making and leadership
The panelists all elaborated on meaningful inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities, as opposed to a shallow “check the box” approach, and that meant being aware of decision making, leadership, and power. Are self-advocates with intellectual disabilities in valued roles and do they have input? Are they in the center of activity? Or are they pushed to the edges?

Eva-Elizabeth advised looking for opportunities for co-leadership with people with intellectual disabilities and Luke agreed, emphasizing the “importance of recognizing our personal authority” and ability to lead and grow our organizational competence. Nicole Jorwic of The Arc mentioned finding ambassadors and champions within organizations and Julia Bascom stressed being mindful of implicit bias and power structure.

5. Welcome and support
The panel spoke about two ways of welcoming and supporting people with intellectual disabilities: accommodations and presuming competence. Thoughtfully providing needed accommodations is necessary for inclusion.

Eva-Elizabeth gave an example of an instance when competence isn’t always presumed: doctor’s appointments. Doctors often speak to caretakers rather than the patient receiving care if the patient has an intellectual disability. By kindly redirecting others to speak directly to people with intellectual disability, we can model presuming competence.

6. Courage and Making mistakes
The panelists emphasized that practicing inclusion is difficult, and everyone will make mistakes. Laurie said to “have courage” and other panelists agreed that you must not be afraid to acknowledge your mistakes, learn from your errors, and try again. Change takes time – know that you won’t always get it right the first time.

As Dr. Griffin of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities put it, with all these strategies you must “follow up and follow through” and “rinse and repeat.” Together, we can build a more inclusive society.

Watch the webinar recording here.


Blog by Mary Ellen Dingley 

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