L’Arche community will often comprise one or several households or foyers, where members with and without a disability share their lives; in addition, many communities run a workshop or day activity centre to extend the abilities of both those living in the community households as well as externs. Communities vary greatly in size, the largest being the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, which numbers more than 100 active people working and living in 10 different homes and work settings.
People who have intellectual disabilities need support in their everyday lives. In L’Arche, people who choose to share their life ‘assist’ them in a wide variety of tasks: cooking, household maintenance, medical or personal care, gardening… The term ‘assistant’ includes both volunteers and employees. The role can involve sharing the life of the home, working in a workshop or taking on leadership. People choose to get involved in community life, in various ways and for varying periods, and L’Arche welcomes them all. A lot of young people come just for a year with us, while others want to commit themselves for much longer.
The mission of L’Arche focuses on the needs of people with intellectual disabilities. Because there is no standard definition of this term, it is not possible here to give a common terminology for all countries of the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an intellectual disability is defined as a greater than average limit on an individual’s mental capacity – this would limit how quickly a person can learn or remember new information, etc.
There are a wide variety of causes of intellectual disability, some of which are presently unknown. Genetic causes include Down syndrome, one of the most common disabilities. Sometimes, a disease like Rubella causes disability. Precise definitions and respectful terminology varies from country to country, but the important thing is to avoid pejorative terms and remember that whatever words are used, such a label can never convey the full richness and complexity of a person’s individual experience.
Across all five continents, L’Arche promotes the well-being of each member, regardless of their faith, religious or philosophical tradition. Each community is founded in the context of a specific culture, and naturally the members come from that culture, bringing with them their beliefs and cultural background. Whether one is Christian, Hindu, Muslim or one of the many who stand outside the major faith traditions, the experience of living together leads to a better understanding of our common humanity, and the life-spirit that enables such a very diverse group of people to live in harmony together. Given L’Arche’s stated aim to help each person develop and fulfill their potential, the community is led naturally to respond to their needs, whether physical, intellectual, emotional, relational or spiritual.
L’Arche, the French word for an ark, as in Noah’s Ark, was the name given to the original home created by Jean Vanier Trosly-Breuil, France, where he began to live with Philippe Seux and Raphael Simi, two people with intellectual disabilities. Subsequent houses founded in Trosly received individual names, although collectively they were all under the L’Arche umbrella. Other communities that got started in France and elsewhere have followed suit, although those in India, founded in a Hindu context prefer to use the term Asha Niketan, meaning House of Welcome. Soon, all the L’Arche communities around the world decided to join together in the International Federation of L’Arche Communities, better known today as L’Arche International. This term has also commonly come to refer to the international structure set up to support the communities.
Ultimate authority in L’Arche rests with the Federation Assembly, which brings together representatives of each community, (some with disabilities, and others who may be assistants or board members). Between the meetings, it delegates authority to the International Leaders and the International Stewardship Board. They work in close collaboration and partnership to serve L’Arche’s mission. The International Leader and Vice Leader form the Executive. Assisted by Leaders at different levels of the Federation, they receive the advice of the Federation Council and the International Reflection Council, where people actively involved in community life, both with and without intellectual disabilities, work together.
Each L’Arche community is an independent legal entity, its income depending largely on the country where it is located. Each is likewise encouraged to be autonomous and seek funds to meet its running and capital costs locally. Government subsidies are on average more substantial in Europe and less so in North America, while communities in developing countries rely more heavily on donations.
L’Arche International is mainly financed by contributions from its members, from outside donors, and from the L’Arche Foundations – without which it could not exist.
Inclusion means enabling people with disabilities to take their place in society, giving them the means to express themselves and contribute. There are three levels of inclusion: the person, as a subject of their own life is at the center of where their support project is being developed, is the master of their project; the person is not only “supported” by the institution, but they also have responsibilities, participating in the thought process, the decision-making, the elaboration of the vision; in society, the person is a full citizen and can speak to defend their rights or commit to a cause, like everyone else.