Independent Living is a movement that gained traction after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It is based on the belief that people living with disabilities have the right to live free and independent lives, without being denied the basic rights granted to people living without disabilities. Leaders of the Independent Living movement realized that we are stronger together, as a community, and that our voices deserve to be heard. Centers for Independent Living — or CILs — were created to be run by and for people with disabilities to provide support, advocacy, and resources that empower the pursuit of independent living. The focus is on peers and human connection, a model that is vastly different from the medical viewpoint that restricted and denied people.
The Independent Living (IL) movement took form in the early 1970s, coming off the back of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. In 1972, Ed Roberts— a pioneer in the independent living and disability rights movements— founded the Berkeley Center for Independent Living (CIL) Inc. in California. Ed, who was living with disabilities from polio, was denied the basic rights and decisions granted to college students without disabilities. So Ed, with the help of some federal funding and fellow students and community members, started the first CIL. The CIL focused on assisting people with disabilities to live in the community with whatever support they needed. The CIL was formed as a powerful social catalyst and part of a movement that made the academic and social life of the university accessible to all.
The Berkeley CIL provided services for people with disabilities that included wheelchair repair, assistance finding accessible and affordable housing, and vocational training. It serves as the model for independent living centers that span across the US today, as well as similar programs across the globe.
The creation of the Berkeley CIL triggered a national movement for independent living, and catalyzed a number of laws and amendments that break down the barriers to accessibility. Some notable laws include:
The Rehabilitation Act (1973), which was passed to prohibit discrimination in federal programs and services and all other programs or services receiving federal funding.
The Rehabilitation Act was then amended in 1978 to provide federal funding for the development of a national network of consumer-led centers for independent living. This was the birth of the community living model, which sees individuals with disabilities as empowered and part of a solution. The community living model puts peer support at the center. It is at the core of the services provided by independent living centers around the globe today.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), which provides comprehensive civil rights protection for people with disabilities; closely modeled after the Civil Rights Act and sections of the Rehabilitation Act.
Ed Roberts and the founders of the Berkeley CIL are widely recognized as the leaders of the independent living movement in the US, though there are countless others who have made substantial contributions to the movement, and to CILs across the world.