The Philosophy of Independent Living

“Independent Living is the emancipatory philosophy and practice which empowers disabled people and enables them to exert influence, choice and control in every aspect of their life.”

Lots of people have made definitions of independent living. They all focus on a few key concepts: choice, control, freedom, equality.

One aim of independent living is to equalize the opportunities available to disabled people. Philip Mason expresses it as an ideal:

“Our dream was that disabled people would be enabled to fulfill their roles in terms of taking the opportunities society offers and meeting the responsibilities society requires.” 

John Evans expresses it as a freedom:

“The essence of Independent Living is the freedom to make decisions about your own life and to participate fully in your community.” 

The National Centre for Independent Living in the UK defines it as choice:

“Independent living for disabled people means being able to live in the way you choose, with people you choose. It means having choices about who helps you and the ways they help. It is not necessarily about doing things for yourself, it is about having control over your day to day life.” 

But independent living is more than an individual aim. It encompasses a change in social relations. It is both a philosophy and a practical approach. It brings disabled people together to work for civil and human rights. They espouse equal opportunities for everyone as well as self-determination for themselves. It is looking for a very simple aim:

“.…Independent Living means that disabled people want the same life opportunities and the same choices in everyday life that their non-disabled brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends take for granted.” 

But this simple aim encompasses all of social and economic life. Being able to grow up alongside non disabled siblings, attending the church, going to the neighborhood school is a dream for many disabled young people today. But it is a dream that can become reality through the principles of independent living. Being able to use the same bus or get the same job as their friends is a dream for many disabled people today. Independent living says that this dream can be turned into real life, through collective action.

It is sometimes claimed that independent living is an individualistic philosophy, that the focus on supporting individual people ignores the wider social and economic pressures facing disabled people. This claim ignores the whole culture of independent living. Achieving the social aims of independent living requires collective action. Independent living is developed through the self-organization of disabled people. The movement is based on collectively developed solutions to individually experienced barriers. The movement recognizes that many disabled people will not manage to achieve independence on their own, that the system we live in puts too many obstacles in the way.

“The corner stone of Independent Living Philosophy is…control and choice….Systems advocacy is of ultimate importance because some choices for disabled people still need to be created.”  This recognition, that we need to create choices, is one of the reasons why disabled people have come together to set up their own organizations, including Centers for Independent Living.

Centers for Independent Living are always controlled by disabled people, they have a majority on the board, often all the voting members of the board are disabled people. This is not because of hostility to non disabled people. Rather, it is an expression of a necessary step towards independent living. Adolf Ratzka says: “disabled people need to be in charge of their own lives, need to think and speak for themselves without interference from others.”  This is as true in organizations as in individual life.