In 2012, Reos met with leaders across the community living sector in Vancouver, Canada. Our aim was to ascertain whether and how key service, community, and government organizations might better cooperate to help people with disabilities live a “good life.” In this sector, a “good life” is defined as the things that make life good, but are often hard to secure for people with intellectual disabilities: loving relationships and friendships, opportunities to work and contribute to the community, asset accumulation, self-determination, and other forms of integration into everyday community life.
Tanya Sather and Richard Faucher of the Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion (BACI), a well-established organization serving 800 people with disabilities in Burnaby and the greater Vancouver area, shared with us their vision for continually improving BACI’s ability to support a “good life” for the people they serve, even amidst increases in demand and cuts in government funding.
We began working with BACI in 2013, first identifying key tensions and opportunities, and then setting a course for BACI’s “growing internally strong,” in Tanya’s words. Presently, the central focus of the engagement is to propagate “learning loops,” a practice and toolkit that regularly engages all employees in creatively and incrementally improving BACI’s services and operations.
The challenge is interesting, subtle, and rewarding. People with disabilities are highly individual, so BACI must continually adjust its services to meet varying and emergent needs, while also complying with government regulations and managing hundreds of employees. It is an incredible task.
BACI practices what it calls a “person-centered approach,” a customer-centric philosophy and practice. People with disabilities have historically been shunned, institutionalized, and otherwise separated from society. Moreover, they tend to be “managed”—rather than seen, understood, loved, and included. The person-centered approach is a kind of “north star” through which BACI workers may at any point ask, “Are those we’re serving included in our thinking and planning?”
We learned early into the engagement, however, that BACI’s desire to include people with disabilities in all possible aspects of the organization and its services also produced an important question: Was BACI simply a service provider, or was it a conduit to valued community inclusion for people with disabilities—or somehow both? Being a “conduit to valued community inclusion” is more appealing in many respects—warmer, more inviting, and most certainly more complex. Being a “service provider” sounds, and is, comparatively business-like: contractually defined and guided by external standards and compliance measures. Yet as BACI faced the need to grow internally strong—to evolve its services, expand the capacities of its key people, and thrive in an atmosphere of decreasing resources—the business imperative was undeniable. Moreover, the “good life” ideal itself provided a vital clue for the resolution of this question and helped us realize that BACI, as a service provider, could and should provide only specific aspects of a “good life”—while at the same time stimulate but not deliver the other aspects.
To borrow a simplistic metaphor: When growing a garden, one can only do so much, and nature must do the rest. When serving people with disabilities, providers tend to go overboard to try to give them everything they need—but this can go too far. The person served can be smothered, or can end up having relationships only with those paid to serve. When this happens, community members more rarely encounter people with disabilities, and then under the supervision of a service provider. The ideal, Reos learned, is for a service provider to assist the person with disabilities lovingly and professionally, but also minimally, with the aim of enabling that person to live a full and rich life, beyond the scope of what any one organization can provide.
A particularly innovative approach to service, for example, is focused primarily on connecting community members, especially business owners, with people with disabilities suited to various forms of employment. In this case, the challenge is to build the bridge, and BACI is learning how. The learning loop is enabling supervisors at BACI to gradually grow the capacities needed to do this artfully.
Speaking personally, I find the task of assisting those pioneering the work of more meaningfully integrating people with disabilities into society very rewarding. As with child protection or racism or violence against women—all spaces where Reos works or has worked—the effort throws light on our human shortcomings. But working with people like Tanya, Richard, and their colleagues, we strive to help kindle that light. It is the same light that helps us find our way forward.