NADD Bulletin Volume XI Number 5 Article 1

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Combating the NIMBY Phenomenon: Considerations for the Community Integration of People with Developmental Disabilities

Kyle Caler, Master’s Candidate, Temple University, School of Social Administration

The Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) phenomenon has been in existence throughout historical record acting as the embodiment of prejudice and discrimination, long before the term “NIMBY” was created (Dear, 1992).  The role NIMBY plays in the development of group homes for the developmentally disabled may be less dramatic than that seen with nuclear power facilities and proposed waste management sites, however its effect on community integration should not be underestimated, as it can “sour” community-facility relations to the detriment of the individuals living there (Dear, 1992).  One severe case of NIMBY attitudes towards group homes for the developmentally disabled occurred in Minnesota in 1992 (Takahashi & Dear, 1997).  Community residents picketed out in front of the group home twenty hours a week for eight months.  It is not hard to imagine what effect this had on the individuals living in the home.  In examining where and how the NIMBY Phenomenon develops, two main factors come to the forefront.

Takahashi and Dear focus on the first factor arising from economic production, technological advancement, and land development (1997).  As we develop as a society, certain undesirable facilities must be created to sustain development and coincide with technological advancements.  These undesirable developments often bring negative factors to the surrounding areas such as noise, waste, contamination, or generalized fear (Takahashi & Dear, 1997; Gleeson & Memon, 1994).  It is a community’s desire to avoid these consequences and others that constitute the first factor.  This type of opposition can often be misconstrued as a form of elitism and parochialism, as it was early in the study of NIMBYism (Cameron & Crewe, 2006).  This viewpoint is a dangerous place to develop a framework from as it discounts the importance of the American dream zeitgeist towards owning your own home.  A more appropriate stance is to view this opposition from the eyes of the homeowner next to the perspective site.  In one study, community residents stated that they feel the implementation of a group home is a violation of their individual rights (Piat, 2000).  These same residents further explained their views, stating, “they felt tricked by the government, and by group home developers.  Neither consulted nor informed about the arrival of the group home, they criticized the way the home was parachuted into the community” (Piat, 2000).

The second factor recognized in the development of NIMBY attitudes surrounds the stigmatization of service-dependent or nonproductive individuals, which classifies them as different, unacceptable, and even dangerous (Takahashi & Dear, 1997).  This stigma can be seen in a variety of studies.  One researcher stated this factor arises from a “thinly covered expression of ignorance, fear, distrust, and abhorrence to ‘strangers’ living in their midst” (Kim, 2000).  Another researcher found that community residents believed that deinstitutionalization should not occur because the developmentally disabled were unable and unwilling to become integrated into the community (Piat, 2000).  A final opposition created within the NIMBY phenomenon stigma states that people in group homes cannot integrate into a suburban community due to their socioeconomic backgrounds (Piat, 2000).  Rothman documented this pseudo-exclusion stating that individuals were, “disqualified from taking a place in the community at large” (Rothman, 1971, p. 41).  Notice he did not find them excluded but disqualified.  If we apply the concept of enforced poverty, created by Nerney in conjunction with Rothman’s findings, it becomes evident that other factors in social disqualification include lack of real friendships and relationships and lack of disposable income (Nerney, 1988).

An additional point to examine within this second factor is the hierarchies of acceptance developed by Takahashi and Dear (1997).  They found that longitudinally the attitudes of communities towards these perceived nonproductive individuals changes over time and place and can vary. 

     The three main oppositional arguments made by opponents of group homes were developed by Dear in 1990 as the perceived threat to property values, personal security, and neighborhood amenity (1992).  As noted above, the threat to property values ties into the perceived destruction of the homeowner’s dream through the fear of lowered property values (Piat, 2000).  This fear, however, has not been strongly supported by many studies looking at the property values around human service facilities (Dear, 1992; Cameron & Crewe, 2006; Pendall, 1999).  Nonetheless this fear is constantly seen in the NIMBY literature and must be addressed within the framework for community integration. 

The second oppositional argument typically seen deals with community members viewing the group home as a potential threat to the safety of their family.  This argument ties back into the hierarchy of acceptance and community members’ stigmatization of certain groups of individuals.  This is especially true if the residents display aggressive or abnormal behaviors in the community (Dear, 1992).  David Sibley’s work is crucial to understand society’s need for spatial separation from the impure or unclean.  Sibley examines the spatial problem in relation to a community’s perceived safety and determines it culminates in the desire to segregate or contain that which is deemed impure or unclean (1995).  One can clearly see the need for sanctity within the North American suburb through the hierarchy of acceptance which actually rates the impurity of a particular group.  Within these suburbs there is a preoccupation with order, conformity, and social homogeneity (Sibley, 1995).  Sibley further explains the inner machinations of this process by stating that “family, suburb, and society all have the particular connotation of stability and order for the relatively affluent, and attachment to the system which depends for its continued success on the belief in core values is reinforced by the manufacture of folk devils, which are negative stereotypes of various ‘others.’” This space, or place where the two categories mix and become indistinct from one another, is called a liminal zone (Sibley, 1995). 

A liminal zone is almost always present in any categorization system and this ambiguity causes anxiety within civilization because it creates a zone where civilization is not in control (Sibley, 1995).  Sibley concludes that the list of people which comprise a society’s liminal zone is flexible and ever- changing depending upon the current situation (1995).  This sounds exactly like Takahashi’s and Dear’s hierarchy of acceptance which they believe is volatile and synergistic (1997). It seems clear that in today’s society one group of people inhabiting the liminal zone are the developmentally disabled who live in the community, specifically suburbs.  It is also clear that this is a result of deinstitutionalization.  That which was once separate and out of mind has suddenly been reintegrated into society at its most protected point, the suburb, and opposition should be expected.

The final oppositional argument is focused on a potential decline in the overall quality of a neighborhood, specifically the affect certain groups’ physical presence will have on that quality (Dear, 1992).  Piat saw this in her interviews with community residents who believed the residents of a group home would change the “social fabric” of their community (Piat, 2000).  This perceived loss of security is similar to the fear in oppositional argument two in that it is often just a perception and not a factual consequence.  That does not mean it should be ignored.  A goal for our framework is to present the group home as a positive influence on the neighborhood, adding to and enriching the community instead of detracting from or draining it.

 Having identified the two factors leading to the NIMBY phenomenon and the three main arguments championed by the opposition the final piece before developing a best practices framework for community integration is looking at trends on where the NIMBY phenomenon is likely to occur to see what, if any, purposeful conclusions can or should be made about locating group homes.  The data from numerous studies finds parallels on two main points: opposition is seen most often in affluent neighborhoods (high income, male, well educated, professional, married, homeowner, living in large cities or its suburbs) and communities that perceive themselves as heavily saturated with health facilities or special housing (Cameron & Crewe, 2006; Dear, 1992; Segal et al., 1980; Takahashi & Dear, 1997).  Secondly, outside of these two archetypes little generalization can be made about the potential responses from a community and attempts to predict NIMBY patterns according to location can be “risky” (Piat, 2000; Takahashi & Dear, 1997).  This realization leads us to an important point as noted by Pendall, that no single stimulus can explain all opposition to group homes (1999).  Combining this starting point with the person centered belief that deinstitutionalized individuals should have a choice of where they live renders any prequalifying of neighborhoods useless as community agencies should be prepared to face opposition at any location and begin the process of community integration no matter what level of hostility they encounter. 

Beginning this framework for community integration from a person centered paradigm is necessary from a best practices standpoint.  The final step before creating a framework for community integration is to examine community integration itself and what needs to be done to insure individuals are given the best opportunity to succeed within any given residential setting.


Attainment of Community Integration and Justifying its Facilitation  


The definition of community acceptance used for the purposes of this article is the combination of positive community experiences with other members of the same community that establish an individual’s feeling of membership and belonging, which in turn leads to a sense of self that is connected to a physical location.  The accomplishment of this definition is intrinsically linked with the role of the service and support organization that serve the individual.  Oftentimes, provider organizations find themselves only in the role of providing, whether it is housing, programs, transportation, or recreation, and this can create an unintended view of the individual receive the supports as a consumer to these services.  A consumer/provider relationship is not a negative connection , merely a limiting one.  As Gardner and Carran (2004) suggest a redefinition of this relationship is necessary to enhance social networks and social capital for all people.  This redefinition needs to focus on not only providing but also “bridging” or facilitating between people and community supports (Gardner & Carran, 2004). 

Other definitions need to be changed as well in this process for it to truly combat NIMBYism and other forms of stigma currently associated with disability.  Sullivan (1992) writes how the presence of  community based services cannot alone insure community integration and that community integration itself must signify more than location to include having meaningful work, families, friends, and recreational activities.  Walker (1999) declares that we have pigeon holed the term “community” to mean where a person lives and outlined their experiences there as either acceptance or opposition instead exploring what it means to have a “sense of place.”  Metzel and Walker (2001) add that while the movement towards individualized supports has opened up choices, there must still be support for community participation in community placements with a variety of community members beyond staff based on individual choice and happiness.  Taken together, these and other important writings lead us to the conclusion that, “providing individualized supports that offer opportunities for participation in places of one’s choosing does not necessarily guarantee that people will experience a sense of membership and belonging.  Furthermore, neighbors, community members, and society as a whole have an obligation to confront and dispel rejecting attitudes, stereotypes and practices” (Metzel & Walker, 2001).     

The definition then to be changed is the definition of who is responsible for community integration.  It is not just the individual with a disability, not just the provider or service agency, not just the neighbors to a group home, not just the local businesses and organizations, not just the state, local, and federal government, it is all of them working together.  We should strive to create tapestry of supports to support the many facets of an individual’s life. This seemingly lofty declaration is grounded in achievability.  Taylor and Bogdan (1989) have shown that establishing relationships between community members and individuals with developmental disabilities, while “typically rooted” around family, religion, or humanitarian sentiments, regularly develop into true friendships.  A process occurs in this transformation from relationship to friendship to effectively “delabel” the person with a disability until that aspect of the person becomes less present in the relationship.  Taylor and Bogdan later conclude that while prejudice and discrimination against individuals with disabilities is a reality, this does not exclude the opportunity for genuine community relationships and the willingness of typical community members to accept individuals with disabilities.  A useful comparison can be made between this struggle for community integration for individuals with developmental disabilities and the success of physically challenged individuals.  Sullivan (1992) notes that by capitalizing on the expanded opportunities that resulted from their challenge of previously dominate attitudes, physically challenged individuals have demonstrated the folly of placing artificial ceilings on the abilities of entire groups of people who are often perceived as different and impaired. 

A final consideration when looking at the justification of this framework for community integration is the basis from a provider point of view.  A provider’s focus should not be looking to facilitate relationships for people because they have a disability, but instead on the tenets of Social Work.  The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) code of ethics has several values which strongly coincide with the community integration work as it relates to combating NIMBY (Soo Kim, 2000; Sullivan, 1992): (1) Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems; (2) social workers challenge social injustice; (3) social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person; (4) social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships.  These ethical standards prescribe a professional responsibility for all social workers within the field of developmental disabilities to be committed to the fight for community integration (Soo Kim, 2000; Sullivan, 1992).  Our role as social workers in this field must be to educate the general community about the process of deinstitutionalization that it is typically more humane, less costly, more effective, and usually a positive for all of society (Soo Kim, 2000).  In addition, social workers must help people understand that the success of our community integration efforts substantively relies on their participation and adaptation to this process. 






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