L'Arche, an international federation of communities for adults with intellectual disabilities, has been critiqued by disability studies scholars throughout its fifty-year history due to its religiosity, its apparent lack of a rigorous stance on the need to address policy concerning people with disabilities, its philosophy concerning disability's meanings, and features of its language and discourse. I address these concerns as someone who is both an academic and a long-term member of a L'Arche community. While there is historically limited and uneasy interaction between these two communities, I suggest there is potential for mutual and worthwhile exchange from theoretical and practical perspectives.


L'Arche, an international federation of communities for adults with intellectual disabilities 1, has been critiqued by disability studies scholars throughout its fifty-year history on several fronts. The religiosity of the movement, its apparent lack of a rigorous stance on the need to address policy concerning people with disabilities, its philosophy concerning the meaning of disability, as well as features of its language and discourse, have all been raised as areas of concern within academic and activist circles. Accordingly, L'Arche, for the most part, has either been dismissed (see Lee, 1991), or given little attention in the disability studies literature. As a recent doctoral graduate in critical disability studies, as well as a long-term member of a L'Arche community 2, I am attuned to the critiques directed at L'Arche and feel that a discussion of relevant issues is called for. In this paper, I hope to address some of the above-named concerns from the stance of one positioned in both L'Arche and the academic community, well aware of the tensions that such co-existence engenders. Further, I suggest that, rather than the historically limited and uneasy interaction between the two, there is the potential for mutual and worthwhile exchange from theoretical and practical perspectives.

L'Arche: History and philosophy

L'Arche (French for 'the ark') is an international organization of communities and homes for adults with intellectual disabilities and the people who live with them. In 1964, Jean Vanier founded the first L'Arche home in the small village of Trosly-Breuil in France by inviting three men who had spent the majority of their lives in a large institution to come and live with him. In what Spink (2006) has described as a "naive but irreversible step" (p. 1), Vanier, by his own account, acted out of a sense of compassion (ibid), offering a home within which the men could experience mutuality and autonomy, sharing together in the customs of daily life after being denied the opportunity to do so for most of their lives. More homes were opened when, early in 1965, Vanier was asked to assume the care of the remaining residents at the nearby institution after the staff resigned en masse (ibid, p. 69). Throughout the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Vanier, with the assistance of friends who had come to help him, established several small homes for residents in Trosly-Breuil and surrounding villages. People who had heard of the movement began to come to the area to commit to a year or more of living in the community. L'Arche continued to grow, and currently consists of one hundred forty seven communities in thirty-five countries 3.

At its core, L'Arche espouses a philosophy of mutuality, respect, and inclusion of all persons. One of its fundamental principles asserts that people with intellectual disabilities are "intrinsically worthy… and have something to give and teach others through relationships" (Cushing & Lewis, 2002, p. 177). Celebration and forgiveness are key elements of the life shared in each household and community. Birthday celebrations are a vital part of community life, community gatherings are frequent, and daily rituals, such as meals and prayer, ground each home in a culture of belonging and presence to each other in the tasks of everyday life. Further, L'Arche homes distinguish themselves from other homes for people with intellectual disabilities in that assistants 4 live for a year or more in one of the houses; their time there is not considered 'work', nor are duties seen as 'shifts', but, rather, house responsibilities and presence to each other are seen as part of the mutual experience of sharing life together in community.

Language and discourse

At first glance, these values resonate well with the principles of inclusion and equity towards which people with disabilities and advocates who work alongside them have been striving for more than three decades. Indeed, several authors (see, for example, Cushing, 2003; Cushing & Lewis, 2002; Kelly, 2010; Redley, 2005) point out that L'Arche philosophy, including consideration of the nature of human vulnerability and acknowledgment of our common humanity, overlaps with scholarship in the disability studies canon (Hughes, 2007; Turner, 2003, Williams, 2001), and offers much from which we can learn and aspire towards (Redley, 2005). L'Arche's commitment to mutual relationships and its philosophy of accompaniment of each other in the demands of everyday life suggests a groundedness that other goal- and implementation-oriented approaches may lack (ibid).

Despite these commonalities, criticism concerning the discourse and language within which its philosophy is framed has been directed at L'Arche from within disability studies. Disability scholars have long been attuned to the power of discourse and the impact it can have on the language used to describe and direct the lives of people with disabilities (Oliver, 1990; Titchkosky, 2007). In light of these concerns, it is not surprising that scholars have approached with wariness the language that L'Arche frequently employs. Vanier's early work, as well as much of the theological work concerning L'Arche which has emerged since its inception 5, refers frequently to the 'brokenness' of the individuals who come to L'Arche and the poverty and suffering each has encountered. While there is no doubt that many men and women who have come to L'Arche suffered under the strictures of institutionalization, as well as rejection from society and in some cases the family, the focus on people's brokenness is a source of unease within disability scholarship. Vanier, as well as scholars who have furthered his thinking in the five decades since L'Arche's inception, is clear that the brokenness to which he refers is that which belongs to all people; the suffering we encounter, as well as the interdependence it engenders, is one of "the ontological characteristics of our lives" (Hauerwas, 2005, p. 16). That is, all humanity has an ontological stake in our common brokenness and vulnerability, a philosophical point to which Vanier and L'Arche have remained committed, and this commonality is the point of connection between people of varying abilities and is the entry to mutually enriched lives. It is in the recognition of our common suffering, according to Vanier, that we are most able to acknowledge the full humanity of the other.

Despite these arguments, discomfort within disability scholarship remains. For example, Roulstone et al (2011) note that 'vulnerable' classifications can justify restrictions on people's rights and autonomy, and can be used as a mechanism to limit opportunities and acceptance within the wider community. In this view, 'brokenness' is a limiting factor, a frame which diminishes acknowledgement of the full potentiality of people with intellectual disabilities. Further, and perhaps more importantly, disability scholars point out that the language of brokenness can facilitate a semantic slide into the dangerous ontological position of being unwhole or incomplete, a notion against which most disability activists have struggled for decades (Linton, 1998; Longmore, 2003; Siebers, 2008; Titchkosky, 2007). This is all the more critical when we acknowledge that people with intellectual disabilities have historically and consistently been spoken for, as opposed to occupying secure positions from which to articulate needs and desires. As commendable as it is to recognize the vulnerability and brokenness in each other, it is rather a different undertaking to have one's brokenness named on one's behalf. As Simmons (1982) has noted, rarely have people with intellectual disabilities had the opportunity to tell their own story. The ontological naming on behalf of one assumed incapable of doing so, even when that ontology includes a shared human condition, remains contestable.

Further, the religiosity within which L'Arche discourse is embedded remains a point of contention with disability scholars. Vanier was, and remains, clear that his reason for inviting men from the institution to come and live with him was firmly entrenched in a "desire to live the Gospel and to follow Jesus more closely" (Vanier, 1989[1979], p. 11). Unabashedly Christian in his charism and focus, Vanier has, throughout L'Arche's history, remained steadfast in his conviction that relationships based on mutuality, and openness to being changed by those relationships (Redley, 2005) is part of our responsibility towards each other as human beings and can bring us to a closer relationship with God. While the invitation to personal reciprocity and openness to change is worthy of serious consideration, Vanier's suggestion that there is potential for spiritual enrichment through the brokenness of another is more contentious. It is indeed problematic that relationships with people with intellectual disabilities might be interpreted as conduits through which others can gain proximity to God; this comes dangerously close to describing oppressive relationships between (powerful) non-disabled people and people with disabilities who serve as a means towards others' personal fulfillment.

"Narrative prosthesis": Enabling others' stories?

The notion that people with disabilities are tools which serve the needs and aspirations of the non-disabled is not new to disability scholarship. In these analyses, scholars have noted that cultural portrayals of disability perpetuate the idea of the disabled person as a flexible and compliant entity (McRuer, 2006) upon which the non-disabled, usually through an exchange marked by profound wisdom on the part of the person with disabilities, acquire the conditions necessary for meaningful personal transformation. As McRuer suggests, the disabled body becomes the means by which "compulsory ablebodiedness" (p. 2) is enabled and intensified, and through which the able-bodied gain access to "epiphanic" (p. 25) moments of personal change and enlightenment. Further, Mitchell (2002), in his work on literary locations of disability, posits the idea of disability as a "narrative prosthesis" (p. 15), a trope which enables both the conveyance of meaningful metaphor, and the realization of a larger and culturally satisfying dénouement. As Mitchell points out, the contribution of the disabled figure in contemporary culture is not to be a proactive force in the realization of the larger common good, but to act as the "contrastive device… to bear out the symbolic potency of the message" (p. 28). In other words, the disabled figure is needed, not as an agent of positive social change, nor as the author of her own destiny, but as an accomplice in the more important project of the true (non-disabled) subject's self-actualization.

These insights from within the disability studies canon, while theoretically disconnected from the L'Arche narrative, raise some difficult questions. Does L'Arche frame disability and the disabled person as an "epiphanic" tool, wherein the personal growth of people without disabilities is acquired at the expense of those with disabilities? Does L'Arche encourage a narrative trope of the human kind? Are people with disabilities relied upon as "prostheses" towards the fulfillment of other people's stories and personal journeys? Both McRuer and Mitchell draw from cultural sites to make their point, and thus it might be argued that there is room to question their relevance in the 'real world' of practiced relationships. In the same way, one might argue that L'Arche discourse concerning the spiritual enablement of the non-disabled through the 'gift' of the disabled person should be considered within the context of the more important everyday enactments of reciprocal and equitable relationships. That is, need we be concerned about the use of religious metaphor to convey the depth of meaning within relationships, when the practices within those relationships appear just?

Brown et al (2011), in their article on mimesis and compassion, argue that a deep commitment to compassionate relationship is fostered in long-term L'Arche assistants through the intentional "inversion of the scapegoat mechanism" (p. 391). That is, rather than engaging in the usual mimetic rivalries "which create widespread competition and conflict" in society (p. 378), the authors state that long-term L'Arche assistants undergo a mimetic transformation which allows them to engage in caring and long-lasting relationships with people with intellectual disabilities. The authors suggest that the L'Arche narrative, which positions "persons with disabilities… as prophets who reveal the truth of social vulnerability" (p. 391), as well as caring forms of imitation within a communal setting, allow L'Arche assistants to embrace an exemplary model of "compassionate action" (p. 392). In this way, a counter-narrative which opposes Girard's (2001) original thesis of mimetic desire and emphasizes the centrality of the person with disabilities, is enacted. While mimesis cannot necessarily be construed as a metaphor, nor does L'Arche explicitly rely on Girard's work as one of its tenets, I note it here as another example of a discursive tool that contributes to the larger L'Arche narrative which, at least in potentiality, places people with disabilities in the somewhat awkward position of being responsible for others' transformation.

Despite the beneficent ends that the reversal outlined above might engender, and in an attempt to respond to some of the questions posed above, I suggest that it remains essential to be attentive to the discursive and metaphoric underpinnings of any movement that claims equity and mutuality as some of its fundamental tenets. As Koosed & Schumm (2005) suggest, we must be vigilant to the meaning and enactment of metaphors, as they can be "world-making" (p. 2, emphasis added) and dangerous in their ability to create "exclusions in the real world" (ibid). That is, while L'Arche assistants may not personally commit themselves to the spiritual elements of Vanier's early discourse regarding relationships between people with disabilities and those without, the question remains whether the discourse, and its coexistent metaphors, frames the way in which these relationships are lived out, and, most importantly, whether or not that framing limits the interactions and lives of people with disabilities. Such depictions carry the danger of inadequate representation, and can be limiting to disabled people's full potentiality and contribution. As Williams (2001) notes, when disability is "reduced to a personal quest for meaning and truth, [t]he politics and history of … disability become marginalized" (p. 132). In other words, when someone, particularly one who has experienced marginalization and oppression, serves a role in the fulfillment of another's life, there is indeed the potential for a piece of that person's life to remain unacknowledged and unaccounted for.

I refer once again to McRuer (2006), who asserts his vision for a "newly imagined and newly configured public sphere where full participation is not contingent on an able body" (p. 30). I, too, imagine a new configuration, one in which, conversely, participation (in this case, participation in a particular discourse) is not contingent on a disabled body, that is, a sphere in which relationships with others and with God do not rely on the extent of one's (dis)ability nor on the depth of one's connection to the disability perceived therein. Garland Thomson (1997) suggests that disability rarely just 'is'; it holds meaning at every level of discourse, simultaneously requiring definition and bringing import to every encounter. In light of this, L'Arche might do well to reflect upon the meaning it ascribes to disability and to persons with intellectual disabilities. At the very least, this might lead to a recognition of the power that metaphors hold, both in the way in which relationships are lived out, and in the extent to which people with intellectual disabilities are recognized as full, complex, human beings.

L'Arche's theological and charitable embeddedness

The religiosity of L'Arche extends beyond the framework within which relationships are articulated. Most notably, literature concerning L'Arche is situated almost entirely within theological writing (see, for example, Brown et al, 2011; Hauerwas, 2010, 2005; McDonald & Keys, 2005; Reimer, 2009; Reinders, 2010a, 2010b; Spink, 2006; Swinton, 2010). The preponderance of discussion concerning L'Arche in theological literature, as opposed to that of disability studies or other related disciplines, is indicative of the charism within which L'Arche has defined itself, as well as its success at encapsulating that charism in its vision and way of life. That is, while L'Arche's commitment to people with intellectual disabilities is an undeniable part of its mandate, as a movement, it is also committed to life lived within a faith community. Each community has a routine which includes some form of religious observation and prayer, the Beatitudes a guiding precept 6. While most L'Arche communities have expanded from their primarily Christian origins—there are communities in several countries which participate in a variety of religious traditions, and assistants are no longer expected to adhere to the religious traditions particular to the community in which they live—there remains in most communities a fundamental grounding in some sort of religious convention and practice. This may explain in part the relative imbalance of academic attention to L'Arche between theological and secular disciplines. While theologians have given L'Arche ample attention, and have primarily embraced its ideas and praxis, disability scholars, for the most part, have not rigorously interrogated L'Arche nor its precepts 7. The juxtaposition between L'Arche's religious parameters and the primarily secular nature of disability studies may explain the lack of rigorous examination of L'Arche by the academic community. While it may seem simpler to exclude L'Arche from serious discussions regarding the care and treatment of people with intellectual disabilities because of its underlying religiosity and apparent lack of political engagement, this disparity is not necessarily helpful to both L'Arche and its critics, and thorough debate might be more productive.

Further reservation to embark on a deeper analysis of L'Arche and its vision on the part of disability scholars may be due to its alignment with charitable models of care. While some scholars have pointed out that, historically, L'Arche's counter-cultural origins (Cushing, 2003) and "philosophy of relational mutuality" (Cushing & Lewis, 2002, p. 174) actually distinguish it from charitable paradigms (ibid), many disability scholars tend to categorize L'Arche as a charitable enterprise due to the emphasis it gives to the care (as opposed to advocacy) of people with disabilities, its acceptance of donations, and its minimal involvement with the disability rights movement (Barnes & Mercer, 2001; Drake, 1996) 8. Historically, disability scholars and activists have soundly rejected models which ally themselves with charity and charitable organizations (Oliver, 1996; Barton, 2001). While the original meaning of charity—the moral and ethical responsibility to perform works of service for others (Ferngren, 2009; Girard, 2001; Jonsen, 2000)—is commendable, disability scholars, particularly adherents of the social model, suggest that charity models portray people with disabilities as non-autonomous, needy, and dependent on non-disabled people for survival, and that, for the most part, charities are unhelpful towards people with disabilities (Barnes, 1997; Barnes et al, 1999; Oliver, 1996). Further, Longmore (1997) suggests that systems of charity are oppressive to people with disabilities insofar as they are embedded in capitalist modes of production and are underlain with a profound cultural fear of difference and dependency. That is, able-bodied people often support charitable enterprises as a way to alleviate the "terrifying prospect of… not being in control of [one's] destiny" (p. 153), and that current first-world pleas to financially support various designations of disability are primarily appeals to a false sense of security, a shoring up of one's able-bodiedness against future possibilities of impairment. While the reasons that assistants come to L'Arche are inevitably complex and do not necessarily fit the definition that Longmore suggests, there is undoubtedly potential for assistants to achieve a sense of personal gain from committing to a way of life in which one is needed, a confirmation of one's sense of self.

Despite these critiques of charitable responses to the needs and concerns of people with disabilities, there remains an ongoing relationship between charitable organizations and support directed to people with disabilities (Shakespeare, 2006), and L'Arche is no exception. Indeed, as neoliberal austerity policies take stronger root in the majority of northern and developed economies (Cross, 2013), there is potential for faith-based, donor-funded and charitable groups to gain even deeper traction in the support of people with disabilities. Thus, while the underlying premise and practice of charitable organizations remains objectionable to many within the disability community, they have demonstrated a propensity for longevity, and the academic community would do well to critically engage with both the possibilities and the dangers of this kind of intervention.

To return to the point with which I began this section, L'Arche's embeddedness in the theological canon, its minimal attention in the disabilities studies literature, and its classification as a charity-based organization, have allowed criticisms of L'Arche to remain primarily undiscussed and removed from central debates in the field. This distinction does not encourage L'Arche to be answerable to claims of non-involvement and to embrace a broader perspective, nor does it encourage disability scholars to be attentive to those elements of L'Arche which clearly have a large and committed following. The few exceptions to this, where tensions and discussions have arisen between the various bodies of literature, will be addressed below.

Human rights and political engagement

One of the primary foci of the disability studies community has been its attention to policy and human rights issues which concern people with disabilities (Barton, 2001; Campbell & Oliver, 1996; Longmore, 2003: Thomas, 1999). In light of this, L'Arche has been criticized for not sufficiently addressing broader policy and human rights concerns that have an impact on all people with intellectual disabilities. Lee (1991) states unequivocally that nowhere in Vanier's writing or thought can we find evidence of action directed at systemic injustice and discrimination against people with disabilities. According to Lee, Vanier offers little to the ongoing struggle for "equity and justice for the disabled" (p. 73). Vanier's vision of not necessarily doing "extraordinary things, but rather, doing ordinary things with love" (Vanier, as cited in Reimer, 2009, p. 53), would thus be a point of contention with Lee due to its apparent ineffectiveness in engendering broader social change.

While L'Arche claims that its commitment to living just and equitable relationships within the micro realities of home and community contributes to, and is indeed essential to changing the world into a fundamentally more compassionate and welcoming place, where L'Arche perhaps falls short is its lack of acknowledgement of the extent of its own participation in the macro systems of injustice within which it is embedded. This is perhaps best exemplified by power differentials that exist between assistants and core members. Despite L'Arche's commitment to mutuality, core members remain less powerful than their able-bodied counterparts, including both the power they hold within the community, and the story of how they got there. Assistants, in their roles as leaders, organizers, and decision-makers, necessarily hold more power in the home and community than do those with disabilities. Moreover, assistants choose to come and live in L'Arche, often because of the somewhat 'removed' lifestyle it offers in the midst of a hurried and capitalist society and because of the communal assumption of the promise of personal fulfillment; core members rarely have that kind of choice. Whether through family preference or pressure from government agencies to 'choose' one of the options available to them in order to keep waiting lists for community placements moving, people with intellectual disabilities rarely have full control over where they eventually are allowed to live. The economic, social and political conditions which exist outside of L'Arche in effect preclude people with intellectual disabilities from experiencing real autonomy and agency in choosing where and how they end up living, and L'Arche's communal lifestyle and the relationships it engenders, despite their authenticity, mutuality, and reciprocity, might not best represent the lifestyle that all core members would choose. In this way, L'Arche might be seen as one more site of oppression, despite its intentions otherwise, by disregarding the inequities embedded in the stories which have led people to live at L'Arche and which continue to be lived out within the homes themselves through the adoption of a specific way of life, one which may not reflect the deepest desire of the core members.

Countering this critique, some scholars offer more generous readings of L'Arche's potential for activism and social change. Reinders (2010a), in his introduction to a collection of theological and scientific papers responding to L'Arche, notes that while Vanier did not begin L'Arche by putting into practice an intentional "politics of inclusion" (p. 13), he has succeeded in creating a "politics of peace" (ibid), and in so doing, offers a sign of transformative hope for the world. Hauerwas (2010), in the same collection, suggests L'Arche exemplifies a concrete enactment of peace precisely because of its emphasis on mutuality and the resolution of conflict essential to communal living. In this way, Reinders and Hauerwas argue, while the practices of L'Arche appear contained and even insular, they demonstrate consistently peaceful and devoted action, and in this way, contribute to a larger good.

The arguments noted above reveal a fundamental tension regarding action for and with people with intellectual disabilities. They expose a juxtaposition between the small world of mutually enriching relationships which characterizes L'Arche, and the need for universal action in the work towards equity and acceptance. Despite the discussion that these tensions have engendered within the disability studies community 9, L'Arche has, throughout its history, remained steadfastly committed to a philosophy of mutuality and the creation of home. While some scholars may point to L'Arche's lack of political involvement with disregard and even disdain, the movement has never professed to aspire towards more complex political engagement. L'Arche's strength lies in its attentiveness to the details of everyday life. In many ways, its emphasis on relationships and their rewards is a microcosm of a simpler, more radical way of being in the world which contradicts many of the edicts of a capitalist society, several of which have come to define the way in which services for people with disabilities are both 'consumed' and delivered. Yet, while L'Arche's 'service delivery' (although this terminology is considered inappropriate in L'Arche lexicon) is, in many ways, a model which other organizations might wish to emulate, there are also sound reasons for L'Arche to become more engaged in current political and litigious concerns.

L'Arche was founded with ideals of refuge and sanctuary for those who had suffered rejection, and for most individuals who came to L'Arche in its formative years, this was the case. However, due to years of work by disability activists, as well as significant changes in policy directed at people with disabilities (such as the closures of large, government-run institutions), the disability community has become more established in the public arena, and has found ways to articulate pressing concerns to a broader audience. L'Arche may, after decades of adhering to the notion of primarily offering a place of healing for the wounded, consider broadening its vision in order to be more responsive to the current needs of people with disabilities. It might do well to engage more fully with advocacy groups who have always included such engagement as a central piece of their mandate.

Further, recent revelations regarding the historical mistreatment of other groups of marginalized persons, for example, the institutionalization of aboriginal children in Canada in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, suggest possibilities for engagement across previously-marked borders of difference (Strong-Boag, 2007) 10. In the ever-shifting discourse used to locate and categorize those who fall outside the norm, and the politically- and socially-sanctioned attempts to contain and manage them, there are points at which organizations like L'Arche could work in solidarity with other groups. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience both within L'Arche and within communities that have historically been shunned from meaningful social and civic participation in contemporary society which could be well used to create a stronger voice in the work towards just policy and human rights for all persons.

Leadership, discipleship

Last, I address a concern that exists in many movements originally founded by a charismatic and admired leader. Jean Vanier is highly regarded within L'Arche, in other organizations which include people with disabilities, and in broader Canadian culture. As in any movement with intense popularity and growth, many people are attracted to L'Arche because of Vanier's work, his life, and the fabled founding story of L'Arche. In any organization which serves people who depend on the commitment of those who come to work there, there is danger in the admiration of such a figure, for it raises the essential question of whether one is making a commitment to the people who live there, people who, for the most part, have very little control over many of their life circumstances, or are acting out of devotion to its founder and a desire to belong to the very recognizable movement he has inspired. While Vanier's work, in his own words, has become "more about the message than community" (as cited in Spink, 2006, p. 265), and as L'Arche gradually moves towards the inevitable reality of L'Arche without Vanier, it appears that L'Arche's work in ascertaining the commitment of assistants, as long as Vanier's influence is felt, remains significant.

Concluding remarks

For half a century, L'Arche has provided a meaningful place of belonging for hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities and those who have chosen to come and live with them. Its philosophy of reciprocity and mutuality, as well as its fundamental philosophy regarding the importance and gift of each person's life regardless of ability provides a meaningful counterpoint to the larger cultural and social discourse which questions the value of people with disabilities. The discussion above has addressed some of the criticisms directed at L'Arche which suggest that its discourse concerning people with disabilities has potentially oppressive connotations, and that its primarily insular nature has resulted in a lack of noticeable engagement with broader political concerns. L'Arche might do well to consider these criticisms, particularly as it becomes clear that the considered worth of people with disabilities in contemporary society remains fragile, and that the need for strong and vocal opposition to overriding discourse remains. In return, the academic community would also do well to consider what L'Arche and its practices have to offer, particularly around its attentiveness to the details of everyday life and the opportunities for relationship and mutuality contained therein, so often absent in the priorities of modern life. Perhaps the reciprocity of which L'Arche speaks could be well-served here, in a more mutually engaged relationship between L'Arche and its members, and disability academics and activists.


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  1. There remain numerous linguistic designations for people deemed to have an "intellectual disability". In North America, "intellectual disability" is the term most commonly employed; in the UK, "learning difficulties" is the acceptable terminology. However, within the ever-shifting and highly contestable landscape of disability nomenclature, it is important to acknowledge the social, political, and economic conditions at play in the naming and treatment of all people with disabilities. For the purposes of this paper, I will use the term "intellectual disability" to describe the group of people who are the focus for this discussion.
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  2. I have been a member of two L'Arche communities for twenty years in various capacities and currently sit on L'Arche Canada's National Council. The opinions and reflections expressed in this article belong to me alone, and I take full responsibility for any errors or omissions.
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  3. L'Arche International website, 2015.
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  4. While terminology within L'Arche differs from community to community, in North America, community members who have intellectual disabilities are called 'core members'—that is, they are considered the core or heart of the community; people who come to assist core members and live in the homes are called 'assistants'.
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  5. See, for example: Reimer, K. (2009). Living L'Arche: Stories of compassion, love and disability. Collegeville: Liturgical Press; Reinders, H. (2010). Human vulnerability: A conversation at L'Arche. In H. Reinders (Ed.). The paradox of disability: Responses to Jean Vanier and L'Arche communities from theology and the sciences. (pp. 3-15). Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman. Vanier, J. (1997). Our journey home. London: Hodder & Stoughton; Vanier, J. (1989[1979]). Community and growth. Revised edition. New York: Paulist; Vanier, J. (1988). The broken body. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre; Vanier, J. (1983). L'Arche: Its history and vision. In G. Hogan (Ed.). The Church and disabled persons (pp. 52-61). Springfield: Templegate.
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  6. The Beatitudes is a section of Matthew's gospel, Chapter 5, verses 1-11. Its principle message suggests that i those who are most marginalized in society are the most blessed. For example, blessed are the 'poor in spirit', for theirs is the Kingdom of God; blessed are they who hunger and thirst, for they shall receive all they need. The prayer's affinity to the lives of many of L'Arche's original members—lives initially marked by rejection and institutionalization, who have been welcomed into a permanent and caring home—has lead to the Beatitude's adoption as one of L'Arche's principle tenets.
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  7. There are some notable exceptions. See, for example, Cushing (2003), who analyses L'Arche within an anthropological framework; Kelly (2010); Lee (1991), and Redley (2005).
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  8. For an interesting counter-discussion on the role of charities in the lives of people with disabilities, see Shakespeare, T. (2006). Disability rights and wrongs, (pp 153-166). New York: Routledge.
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  9. Some disability studies scholars have addressed the tension in the field between concerns of human vulnerability and mutual relationships, and those of human rights and political activism. See, for example, Gibson, 2006; Hughes, 2007; Hughes & Paterson, 1997; Price & Shildrick; 2002. These authors note that, in spite of the tremendous gains achieved by the disability rights movement and the social model, the need to address the implications of a recognized human vulnerability and interdependence remains.
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  10. Acknowledgement to Lori VaanHolt and John Guido for this idea.
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