Citizen circles opening new possibilities for people who have a disability


Circles a simple yet profound way to create change
Monday July 11, 2011 — Michelle Strutzenberger

In a pocket of Cincinnati, circles of people are transforming cultural norms by gathering around individuals labelled with a disability and “pulling” them towards new possibilities.

The effort is nurtured recently in part by the life and work of renowned citizen advocate, Tom Kohler, of Savannah, Georgia, who is working against cultural norms to invent new ways that people can matter to each other.

Kohler’s recently published book, Waddie Welcome & the Beloved Community, co-authored with Susan Earl, has become the key container for his mission. The book tells the story of an African-American man with cerebral palsy living in a nursing home and the efforts of his friend, Tom and Susan, to build a circle of community around him.

Published last year, the book has been making its way around the world, with groups in England, Europe, Australia, Canada and the U.S.A reading it aloud.

Cincinnati resident Jo Krippenstapel recalls a recent moment when Tom himself read the book to a group of fellow residents labeled with a disability and their families.

“(I) think about the look on people’s faces as we sat in this beautiful auditorium in a little arts theatre in a part of Cincinnati that is itself marginalized by so much of the prevailing culture . . . I turned around and looked back, and people’s eyes were locked, lots of emotion on people’s faces, lots of welling up of people’s eyes, that just said to me how this story touches a place of such deep longing in people’s hearts,” says Jo.

She says the story resonates because it speaks to how we all want to matter to other people and have other people matter to us, “and have that be at the centre of the contributions that we make in this world.”

“People’s expressions said that’s the kind of world I want to live in,” Jo recalls.

Another Cincinnati resident, Tim Vogt, describes the citizen circles as a way to expand our world, giving us another excuse to do what we enjoy and even potentially make it possible for a fellow human being to find his place in the world.

He notes doing this work doesn’t have to any more complicated than thinking about and then acting on simple ways to connect, whether that’s around a shared hobby, a love of food or coffee, or a common experience.  In the process, people break from the cultural norm of standing off from others because “professionals and charities will deal with them.”

For more on creating citizen circles for people who have a disability, click here.

If you have feedback on this article please contact Michelle at 800-294-0051, ext. 27, or e-mail michelle(at)


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