There is now widespread interest in developing social policies and practices that are grounded in principles of independent living. The Independent Living (IL) paradigm reflects a shift in thinking away from traditional approaches to supporting persons with disabilities. Independent Living Centres (ILCs), which started in the early 1970s in the United States, and in the 1980s in Canada, are now a major force in the promotion of the IL concept worldwide. The guiding principles of these consumer-driven centres include: promoting an empowerment philosophy that incorporates consumer control/self-direction over decision-making; offering cross-disability support; providing options/choice and flexibility; and encouraging inclusion and full participation. Despite their prevalence, a surprisingly limited body of research exists on the impact of ILCs. A survey was used to investigate the impact of ILCs in Canada on their communities of interest (groups connected to the ILCs). Surveys were sent to formal organizations, informal groups, and family/friends. A final response rate of 52.6% was achieved (111 of 211 surveys returned). Overall, moderate to good levels of familiarity, involvement, and impact were found. The results affirmed the importance of independent living centres to individual empowerment, community change, and the IL movement.
The findings of a national study of Independent Living Centres (ILCs) in Canada suggest that the ILCs are a potentially powerful innovation for the consumer/survivor movement. Independent Living Centres are non-profit, cross-disability, consumer-driven, community-based centres which promote both individual empowerment and community change. The IL and mental health reform paradigms share in the development of empowerment theory, acknowledge the importance of consumer driven organizations, and utilize a socio-political analysis of disability which goes beyond the person and recognizes the environment as problematic. Accordingly, the reform paradigm seeks innovative services which are separate from the traditional mental health system. Before this can fully become a reality, mental health professionals need to increase their knowledge of the IL philosophy and ILC practice. Similarly, ILCs need to increase their knowledge of consumer/survivor empowerment and recovery and carefully assess any barriers that exist in terms of consumers/survivors accessing the ILCs. Collaboration between the IL movement and mental health will increase the likelihood of ILCs becoming a stronger resource for consumers/survivors.