Nika, Kim, and Jean talk to a woman who has approached the CIL information table at Eastern Market in Detroit.

Ann Arbor News, April 9, 1978: A Touch Of Class – Tom Tomsik, supervisor of Vocational Rehabilitation Services and a member of the advisory board of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, and Euline McCorkle, center, director of the Center, get a preview of spring fashions from the Coterie Club fashion show from Coterie member Judy Hakken.

History of the CIL

Our Founders and Their Focus

The founding staff of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living surely would be awestruck to see it today. When John Weir, Corki McCorkle, and Jack Butler worked with others to start this nonprofit in 1976, their initial goals were providing physically disabled individuals with peer support, informationon accessible housing and transportation, and attendant care options. They created the CIL because, according to their original grant proposal, “There is no central organization for exchanging information between the community and the physically handicapped.”

The focus was on people with significant physical disabilities. The goal was maximum independence for these individuals. The philosophy behind the plan was that people with disabilities are best able to counsel and support others with disabilities. The founders intended to serve as role models as well as change agents. And they did.

John Weir left the Ann Arbor CIL in the early 1980s to work as an advocate for students with disabilities at Washtenaw Community College. In 1983, he moved to El Paso, Texas, to run a Center for Independent Living there. Although he passed away two years later from kidney disease, he made such an impact on the El Paso community that a street was named after him.

A scholarship is also named for him. In 1995, the Weir family established the John Weir Endowment Fund at the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation to award scholarships to local high school seniors with disabilities who are going on to college. To date, the Ann Arbor CIL has granted more than $70,000 in John Weir Student Scholarships.

The Independent Living Movement 

As the founders of the nation’s fourth Center for Independent Living, John Weir, Corki McCorkle, Jack Butler, and Lena Ricks were greatly influenced by the first CIL in Berkeley, California, which was not only changing the lives of people with disabilities but changing the way disabilities were perceived in the culture at large.

That first Center for Independent Living evolved from the efforts of a few students at the University of California at Berkeley, including Ed Roberts, a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic (due to polio contracted while he was in high school). Ed enrolled at Berkeley in 1962, but he had to live at the hospital on campus because there were no dormitory facilities or university services prepared to accommodate his circumstances.

By 1965, several students lived at the hospital. They called themselves the “Rolling Quads,” and they began to find their collective voice. They hosted a university seminar on “Strategies for Independent Living,” where they discussed methods for living successfully outside the hospital. This led them to the city council, where they advocated for ramps in the city. They even took sledgehammers to some curbs on campus and poured tar to create makeshift sidewalk ramps.

The students eventually won federal funding to create the Physically Disabled Students Program, the first of its kind in the country. But before long, many non-students were coming to them with similar requests for help with accessible housing, transportation, and other kinds of problem-solving. In order to serve this wider population, the first Center for Independent Living was formed in 1972. Ed Roberts became the Berkeley Center’s director and went on to become the director of the State of California’s Department of Rehabilitation.  Later, Ed received a MacArthur Foundation Award that provides unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.  The three criteria for selection of MacArthur Fellows are exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate creative work.  He then went on to establish the World Institute on Disability, in Berkley California.

Other CILs quickly followed in Boston and Houston before Ann Arbor’s CIL opened in 1976. By 1978, there were 35 independent living programs, and by 1981, these organizations formed the National Council on Independent Living (which now boasts more than 600 members internationally).

Into the Millenium

Tom at the 35th CIL Anniversary Gala.

Image Description: Tom, staff member and wheelchair user, holds a mic at the 35th CIL Anniversary Gala.

As services have expanded at the Ann Arbor CIL, so has the facility, which moved to an 8,000-square-foot office in 2002 and then to its current location, a

16,000-square-foot building in south Ann Arbor in 2007. This new space has fulfilled the long-time vision of the CIL as a “Gathering Place” for the disability community with multiple meeting rooms, a kitchen, a fully-accessible fitness gym with several NuSteps, weights, and a wheelchair-accessible scale, a computer lab, and a large open space for receptions and art exhibits. Outside, a community garden with accessible raised beds has sprung up. And the building is in a great location for evening bike rides using one of the adaptive bicycles available for loan.



Rebranding to Better Serve Our Mission

After 47 years of being known as the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living (AACIL,) it was decided to update the organization’s brand/name.

The AACIL will now be known as Disability Network Washtenaw Monroe Livingston or simply Disability Network.

This update was made for a multitude of reasons including, but not limited to:

  • Shifting focus to movements led by people with disabilities
  • The name “Center for Independent Living” (CIL) now being associated with residential facilities of all kinds and not solely for people with disabilities
  • The other fourteen CILs in Michigan now using the moniker “Disability Network” (or a variation of it)
  • Having our organization’s name reflect that we serve people with disabilities in Washtenaw, Monroe, and Livingston Counties

We will continue to be disability-led and disability-operated. We will remain a place for people with disabilities across our community to gather, build, advocate, and reach personal goals, with the common vision of an inclusive community that is accessible to everyone. The physical environment and the attitudes of our fellow community members create the biggest barriers for people with disabilities. We will work to break down these barriers by educating our communities that people with disabilities do not need to be fixed nor are their disabilities a barrier. We will also advocate for the need to alter the physical environment to provide accessibility.


History of Berkeley CIL and Ed Roberts, plus later info on Rehabilitation Act: Brown, Steven E., Freedom of Movement: Independent Living History and Philosophy, self-published manuscript, Institute on Disability Culture, 2000.