Do-It-Yourself Community

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John McKnight tells an instructive story of a do-it-yourself community which was doing so much better at meeting its own needs than a community whose needs were being met by a team of professionals who provided a range of services to them.

The story goes something like this: ‘In a small, relatively isolated community on Martha’s Vineyard, about every tenth person used to be born without the ability to hear. Everybody in the community, hearing and non-hearing alike, spoke a unique sign language brought from England when they immigrated to Massachusetts in 1690. In the mid-twentieth century with increased mobility, the people ceased to intermarry, and the genetic anomaly disappeared.

‘But before the memory of it died — and the sign language with it — historian Nora Groce studied the community’s history. She compared the experience of the non-hearing people to that of the hearing people. She found that 80 percent of the non-hearing people graduated from high school, as did 80 percent of the hearing. She found that about 90 percent of the non-hearing got married, compared to about 92 percent of the hearing. They had about equal numbers of children. Their income levels were similar, as were the variety and distribution of their occupations.

‘Then Groce did a parallel study on the Massachusetts mainland. At the time, it was considered to have the best services in the nation for non-hearing people. There she found that 50 percent of non-hearing people graduated from high school, compared to 75 percent of the hearing. Non-hearing people married half the time, while hearing people married 90 percent of the time. Forty percent of the non-hearing people had children, while 80 percent of hearing people did. And non-hearing people had fewer children. They also received about one-third the income of hearing people. And their range of occupations was much more limited.

‘How was it, Groce wondered, that on an island with no services, non-hearing people were as much like hearing people as you could possibly measure? Yet thirty miles away, with the most advanced services available, non-hearing people lived much poorer lives than the hearing. The one place in the United States where deafness was not a disability was a place with no services for deaf people. In that community all the people adapted by signing instead of handing the non-hearing people over to professionals and their services. That community wasn’t just doing what was necessary to help or to serve one group. It was doing what was necessary to incorporate everyone.’

We all know there are situations where services provided by professional are absolutely essential. However, if we want to create a healthy community here in West End, there is an important lesson for us to learn from that story, don’t you think?

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