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Making Life Work

Freedom and Disability in a Community Group Home

Jack Levinson

Publication Year: 2010

Group homes emerged in the United States in the 1970s as a solution to the failure of the large institutions that, for more than a century, segregated and abused people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Yet community services have not, for the most part, delivered on the promises of rights, self-determination, and integration made more than thirty years ago, and critics predominantly portray group homes simply as settings of social control.
Making Life Work is a clear-eyed ethnography of a New York City group home based on more than a year of field research. Jack Levinson shows how the group home needs the knowledgeable and voluntary participation of residents and counselors alike. The group home is an actual workplace for counselors, but for residents group home work involves working on themselves to become more autonomous. Levinson reveals that rather than being seen as the antithesis of freedom, the group home must be understood as representing the fundamental dilemmas between authority and the individual in contemporary liberal societies. No longer inmates but citizens, these people who are presumed—rightly or wrongly—to lack the capacity for freedom actually govern themselves.
Levinson, a former group home counselor, demonstrates that the group home depends on the very capacities for independence and individuality it cultivates in the residents. At the same time, he addresses the complex relationship between services and social control in the history of intellectual and developmental disabilities, interrogating broader social service policies and the role of clinical practice in the community.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. iii-vi


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pp. ix-x

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Preface: The Self-Organized Life

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pp. xi-xx

Making Life Work: Freedom and Disability in a Community Group Home examines the nature of freedom and authority in a setting often taken as the opposite of freedom: a group home for adults with intellectual disability (or mental retardation, a term still used commonly in the United States). The book is based on more than a year of field-work ...

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pp. xxi-xxii

Of course, I could never have made this work without the help of others. I am indebted to Paul Attewell, David Goode, Barbara Katz Rothman, and the late Lynn Zimmer for their tireless intellectual sup-port for this project. To Barbara I owe special thanks for her guidance and encouragement as I prepared the book. I am also very grateful to...

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Introduction: Welcome to Driggs House

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pp. 1-15

Driggs House is a large apartment in a modest building on a quiet side street near a busy commercial area in one of New York City’s outer boroughs. Driggs House has fifteen residents and is categorized as a community residence (CR), which specifies the number of residents, staffing patterns, staff-resident ratios, and on-site services ...

I. Locating the Problem

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1. Intellectual Disability: A Brief History

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pp. 19-36

After the Second World War, institutionalization was, in effect, the professional consensus about how to deal with people diagnosed with intellectual and other developmental disabilities (such as cerebral palsy). Physicians explained to parents that “nothing could be done” for their disabled children but provide custodial care, which ...

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2. Governing Disability in the Community

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pp. 37-56

The citizen is construed and addressed as a subject actively engaged in thinking, wanting, feeling and doing, interacting with others in terms of . . . psychological forces. . . . In the family, the factory, and the expanding systems of counseling and therapy, the vocabularies of mental hygiene, group relations, and ...

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3. The Work of Everyday Life

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pp. 57-66

The claim that residents are governed is plausible prima facie, given the mission of Driggs House and the indirect character of its authority. This study of everyday life there shows that the dilemmas of freedom are ongoing practical dilemmas that organize the social order of the group home. More than that, because of the common ...

II. How the Group Home Works

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4. All in a Day’s Work

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pp. 69-92

On weekdays, I tried to arrive at Driggs House around noon, to take advantage of the relative quiet before the evening shift, when the house was full. Most of the residents were not at home during the day, because residents of community-based facilities in New York State must be provided services (or be employed) ...

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5. Endless, Uncertain Work

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pp. 93-114

Driggs House is very much like the kind of workplace Michael Lipsky calls a “street-level bureaucracy.” Counselors face many of the dilemmas that characterize the public service work of “people processing” in a range of settings—welfare offices, public schools, free medical clinics, and police stations, to name a few—in which there ...

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6. The Clinical Problem of Everyday Life

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pp. 115-142

Another way I approached work was in group home knowhow, the practical, often tacit knowledge individuals have about their work that they develop in doing the work itself. Know-how is a kind of knowledge posed in contrast to what counselors learn in their formal training and have available in written materials such as procedure ...

III. Group Home Technologies

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7. Expertise and the Work of Staff Meetings

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pp. 145-161

There was a weekly staff meeting at Driggs House every Thursday afternoon, from 2:00 to 5:00. Its length was one indication of the complexity of work coordination and, for both clinical and legal reasons, the value placed on efficient communication and consensus across shifts. Sonia and the main counselors—those who worked the ...

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8. Paper Technologies: Doing and Documenting

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pp. 163-188

A substantial part of the work at Driggs House comprises the ongoing collection, assessment, and display of data about the work. The shelves in the staff office are lined with binders that document the lives of residents in multiple ways: daily, weekly, monthly, annually. These books, and the forms they contain, are more than just ...

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9. Goal Plans and Individual Conduct

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pp. 189-210

At Driggs House, “goal plans” are the technologies at the coreof the group home’s individual work with residents. Lipsky (15) writesthat in “people-processing,” work goals in the general sense have “anidealized dimension that make them difficult to achieve and confus-ing and complicated to approach.” Goal plans formalize what conduct...


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10. What Everybody Knows about Paul

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pp. 213-241

Work at Driggs House is never done. It is endless because demand is endless, because human conduct is complex, unpredictable material, and because the goal of group home work is itself a process. One aspect of this endlessness is the nature of clinical work in the community: no longer contained within the unifying walls of the ...

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Conclusion: Making Life Work

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pp. 243-250

The rhetoric of risk is terribly compelling in a setting organized to supervise individuals by cultivating their independence. One aspect of this in practice is working to reduce the problems residents are likely to cause themselves. It’s not difficult to see how they could be presumed to be always at risk, given that risk administration is ...


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pp. 251-253


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pp. 255-270


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pp. 271-285

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About the Author

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p. 287-287

JACK LEVINSON is assistant professor of sociology at the City College of...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816673391
E-ISBN-10: 081667339X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816650828

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2010