Mainstream Living

Employee Tip - Levels of Community Integration

Half a century ago, if you were diagnosed with an intellectual disability or a mental illness, you would have two choices: live with a family member for the rest of your life, or go to an institution and live the rest of your life in isolation from the community. Mainstream Living is one of the many organizations that arose out of the deinstitutionalization movement in this country, whose basic premise was that there must be a better way.  Namely, people in this population should be integrated into the community, and have the same choices and opportunities available to the general population.

After more than 40 years, Mainstream Living is still committed to this fundamental principle.  But the term “community integration” can mean different things to different people.  A method of integration may be overwhelming and counterproductive for one person, while liberating for another.  When helping someone integrate into the community, it is important to find the right balance for that particular person.  Listed below are levels of integration, starting with the simplest, and ranging to the most complex.  Try to identify the optimal level for each member you serve, and think about what that person needs in order to move to the next level.

Level 1: Community Presence
For some people, just getting out of the house is no small feat.  A whole host of barriers can stand in the way of this, including anxiety, stigma, shame, and fear.  For people who struggle just to get out, passively tagging along with a staff member to a public place can be exciting, and very enriching.  It can also open the door for a greater level of community involvement.   However, if you are working with somebody who is already at a higher level of civic engagement, going somewhere for the sake of going somewhere can often feel boring or meaningless.  This is especially true if a staff member has pushed them to be in a community space they don’t particularly like.  Look for these signs, as they may indicate that a person wants more opportunities than what you are providing, and wants to move to a higher level of integration.

Level 2: Simple participation in community activities
Once someone has gained comfort existing in public settings, the next logical choice is to give them opportunities to engage with the space. For example, if someone has found a niche at the library, this could be helping a member get a library card and check out books.  For some people, a staff member’s efforts to open a door like this can be life changing.  Still, a member may want more.  Rather than just using a public space, a person might want to be a part of the social scene that makes that space what it is.  This may be a good opportunity to steer this person to level 3.

Level 3: Interacting with members of the community
Moving from being in the community to interacting with people can be one of the most difficult, yet most rewarding achievements for members.  For example, someone who has speech that is hard to understand may be reluctant to repeat themselves over and over again to a waiter at a restaurant, and the waiter may lose patience. As their staff, it is our responsibility to provide opportunities and encouragement for people to interact despite these barriers.  Even though it may be a struggle for some, the feeling a person will get from having that connection with another person is invaluable.

Level 4: Giving back to the community
There comes a point when just interacting is simply not enough.  Everyone, including people with disabilities, want to be a valued member of the community. One of the best ways to do this is to work a job or volunteer.  Again, people we serve face a lot of barriers in this arena, and our role is to provide encouragement and support.  One of the best things you can do for somebody with as a staff member is to help them find a job, or any way of giving back to the community.
Level 5: Becoming a community leader
Few people, including those without disabilities reach this status, though having a disability does not preclude somebody from being a leader in the community.  The people we serve can become advocates for others, but they can also gain respect in ways that are completely unrelated to their disabilities.  Individuals with disabilities are capable of running their own businesses, getting involved in politics, and helping to organize social events.  If someone is interested in these things, do the best you can to support them in their efforts.


Community integration can enrich the lives of the individuals we serve on a personal level.  However, encouraging people to reach for higher levels of integration can have a big impact on the community as well, making it a more tolerant place for people with disabilities and mental illness.  Simple encouragement and support of those we serve can go a long way in making our community a better place.

© 2024 Mainstream Living, Inc.