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ECNV: Chance or Choice? Part 2: Beginnings

This is the second part of a series of articles intended as part of ECNV’s celebration of its 40th Anniversary. This article continues to focus on the people and events surrounding ECNV’s founding in April 1982.

By Doris Ray, Director of Advocacy

A Center for Independent Living (CIL) for Northern Virginia

It was Tony Young who first mentioned the idea of our group starting a CIL in Northern Virginia. It was during the first meeting of Handicaps Unlimited of Northern Virginia. He had heard there was a second round of federal funding that would be available in 1981 so that people with disabilities could establish CILs.

The first Virginia CIL was established by our state organization in Norfolk in 1980. A different group of people with disabilities had also proposed to create a CIL in Northern Virginia, but it lost the competition. However, our state organization encouraged us to apply this time.

The chapter voted to support Tony’s idea, and a committee was formed to work on a proposal. Since most of us had full-time jobs, We spent nights, weekends, and holidays writing the proposal during the spring of 1981. We secured the endorsement of the Fairfax County Committee on the International Year of Disabled Persons, and the IYDP Committee made establishing a CIL in Northern Virginia one of its high priority goals.

In July 1981, we submitted our proposal to the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services (DRS – now DARS, the Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services). It was DRS that would select the organization that would receive funding to become the second Virginia CIL. After a month or so of waiting, we found out they would submit our proposal to the U.S. Department of Education.

Then after a couple more months, we got word that we would receive a federal grant and state funding to start our CIL, which we called ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia (ECNV). The name was chosen to emphasize our mission for the new CIL, which was to provide peer-based, self-help services to empower people with disabilities to take charge of their own lives and work towards achieving their own goals for how they wanted to live independent lifestyles in the community and fully participate in society.

Our goal was to operate a CIL that was modeled after the first CIL in Berkley, California, and build a program that would be guided by the basic components of Independent Living philosophy, which include the belief that:

  • Disability is a natural part of life, and people with disabilities are not merely patients needing to be cured or helpless invalids who are incapable of living outside of institutions;
  • People with disabilities are capable of living independently in the community when they possess the requisite knowledge, skills, abilities, resources, and peer mentoring and support to achieve their own independent living goals;
  • No matter the type or origin of one’s disabilities, most of us share similar experiences of having to navigate a society that devalues our existence, ignores our needs, disparages our achievements, and has traditionally excluded us. Consequently, people with disabilities have valuable insights and practical advice to offer their peers through the provision of peer counseling and other IL services on a cross-disability basis;
  • People with disabilities should have the right to make their own decisions and the right to fail, and having experienced a setback, have support and encouragement to try again, just like anyone else; and
  • People with disabilities should have a mechanism for them to provide consumer control and policy direction in the development and implementation of the services system that serves them.

Several months of start-up activities followed. We had help and guidance from many people, including a steering committee composed of community leaders. One member was Don Beyer, then the President of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce and who is now the U.S. Congressman from the 8th District of Virginia. His business acumen was invaluable.

ECNV opened its doors on April 1, 1982. Yes, that’s right, it was April Fools’ Day! Tony Young, our first ECNV Executive Director, thought it fitting as we were quite the novices venturing out into the unknown.

Later that month, we hosted a grand opening celebration which more than 100 people attended. Tony Young and DRS Commissioner Altamont Dickerson cut the ribbon. And we were off and running!

The Wrap

Little did our group of people with disabilities know when we met that it would lead to starting a non-profit organization run by and for people with disabilities with the aim of empowering each other and our peers to take charge of our own lives and personal destinies. We talked about the need for a law to protect the rights of people with disabilities but never dreamed it would be a reality in 10 short years. Nor did we foresee the organization we founded would still be thriving as an integral part of the disability community 40 years after its founding.

Well, here we are today. Still providing IL Core Services like peer counseling, independent living skills training, information, and referral to community resources and individual and systems advocacy. We’ve added new services like services for youth of transition-age who are moving from post-secondary education to their first job and adult life.

We continue to offer education and training programs on disability issues and provide technical assistance and information to local governments and the business community.

We’re redoubling our outreach efforts to unserved and underserved segments of the community, particularly multiplying marginalized people with disabilities. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we’ve been offering services virtually, including support groups and webinars.

Despite ECNV’s new leadership and staff and recent programs and services designed to meet the needs of the disability community in the 21st Century. Our mission and commitment are the same: To empower people with disabilities to take charge of their own lives and promote equal access and the civil and human rights of people with disabilities.

So, get involved. It’s your choice – and your future! You have the opportunity to shape the future of ECNV and the lives of people with disabilities! What do you want ECNV to look like a year from now or in 5 years, 10 years, or even 40 years from now. As a consumer-controlled, consumer-run organization, ECNV is YOUR CIL, and it’s up to you to take charge of its future. You’ll be making a worthwhile commitment!