Close to Home: Building a model for independent living

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Almost one in every four Californians has a disability — which means that disability affects all of us.

For decades, California was considered the most progressive state in the nation when it came to funding services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and epilepsy. However, even before the 2008 financial crisis, state funding priorities were shifting, and in the past 10 years budget cuts have created a crisis across California, with many social service organizations closing across the state.

How we collectively choose to see, support and include people with disabilities in our communities and daily lives directly reflects how our communities value their citizens. Every day I see the amazing outcomes that result when we empower our fellow citizens with disabilities to be a part of the fabric of our lives.

Becoming Independent, the nonprofit organization I have the privilege to lead, is one of Sonoma County’s oldest social impact organizations. Becoming Independent was founded in 1967 by a group of determined Sonoma County parents who refused to accept that the only option for their adult children with disabilities was institutionalization. What began as a manual skills training center for nine people today serves more than 1,000 individuals and their families across two counties.

Where Sonoma County leads, the rest of the world is still struggling to follow.

Only this year, the United Nations issued its first-ever disability inclusion strategy, which lays a foundation for disability inclusion across all pillars of the work of the U.N. And although President Barack Obama signed the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, the U.S. Senate has twice failed to ratify it.

Still, what has guided Becoming Independent throughout these 53 years — and what inspires me daily — is our belief in the innate value of every human being and the determination with which we work to make this belief a shared worldview. When everyone is given the opportunity to exercise their fundamental human right to live a life of dignity, integrity and independence to the best of their abilities, we believe that the whole community is elevated.

And we see the truth of it every day in our work: We see it when Mauricio and Austin, two passionate sports fans who sometimes struggle to make their voices understood, decide to launch their own sports commentary series on YouTube. We see it when Danielle builds the skills and confidence to secure a full-time job at Whole Foods and then writes a manual on bagging techniques to help her co-workers succeed. We see it when Kyle masters the art of the coffee pour and delivers hot coffee to riders every morning on the SMART train.

These personal successes represent not only the determination of these individuals, but a wonderful web of community professionals and organizations who embrace their potential. Whether it’s Whole Foods, the SMART train, Redwood Empire Food Bank or any of Becoming Independent’s other business partners, together we’re ensuring that no one is left behind in Sonoma County and that our community’s work force reflects the full, rich diversity of our citizens.

In this season of gratitude — and particularly on Tuesday, the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities — I want to thank everyone in Sonoma County who shares our commitment to shifting the ways in which we honor differing abilities. I am grateful to live and work in a community that so fully embodies this spirit of inclusion and belonging for all.

Together, let’s continue to build a model for the rest of the nation and the world.

Luana Vaetoe is CEO of Becoming Independent, which is based in Santa Rosa.

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