24 October 2019
You First is a Social Enterprise, formed as a Community Interest Company that exists to support people with learning disabilities and/or autism to build and grow their lives. Through the use of community assets and bespoke Micro-Teams that people have selected themselves we enable people to enjoy ordinary lives, fulfil their personal ambition and enjoy the fact that they are progressing and growing in life.
Connecting People is a key aspect of personal empowerment and forms a major part of You First’s Social Mission. Social Isolation remains a reality in the lives of people with learning disabilities and/or autism and when I talk with people it is often a key aspect of the conversation. People still feel cut off from their community and often that community presents as a scary and overwhelming place, full of unpredictable people, noise and confusion. So, connecting people has to be something that happens on the person’s own terms and needs to happen in a meaningful and purposeful way that makes sense to the individual.
One of the greatest mistakes made when supporting people to connect with their community is the miscomprehension that community equates to places. Community isn’t structures, amenities or facilities, it isn’t a geographical area or a place on the compass; community is people. So when we talk about supporting people to connect with their community we are actually talking about connecting people with people of like minds, with shared values, goals and interests. We are talking about people building and growing the network of human beings in their lives – and human beings who are not paid to be at their side. This is what people “building and growing their lives” means.
Buildings and places are where community happens, they are not community itself. It is entirely possible for someone to go for a coffee with their enabler in the local coffee shop, sit and chat and then go shopping and not actually connect with their community at all. The person may have connected with the enabler – but how has this experience facilitated the growth of the person’s life? An important question to ask when thinking of this scenario is when did the person last invite a friend to their home for a coffee? Do they actually have a friend to invite?
When delivering a training session on Connecting People recently I asked the delegates to complete a Relationship Map, one for them and one for the person they support. One of attendees was deeply moved by the reality that once paid staff were removed, the persons social network was incredibly sparse. It was a very powerful moment in the session.
Community is all about relationships and relationships that the person has chosen, relationships that are congruent with their world view, their values, goals, hobbies and interests. There are many communities that exist and that we are all familiar with and it doesn’t take much effort to explore what’s out there and the foundation for connecting people begins to form.
The majority of us reading this blog will have a network of family and friends around us to whom we can turn when things go wrong or when we need to talk something through. We’ve had a difficult day at work, an argument with our partner, a significant event has happened or we’re confused about a decision that needs to be made – we can reach out to people, people who have freely chosen to be part of our world. As the ice under our feet gets thin, we have people we can call upon. This isn’t always the case for people with a learning disability and/or autism. People’s worlds can be scarily small.
If we are truly to connect people then the focus of social care needs to shift from time and task approaches to an approach that fosters, encourages and allows time and space for the building of relationship, firstly with their enabler and then with the person’s chosen community(ies). There is an obvious challenge to commissioners in this, however the flexibility of Individual Service Funds provide many solutions. The relationship with the enabler is key simply because before we can support people to connect there has to be a deep and intimate knowledge of the person. It’s not a case of “what needs do they have?” it’s a case of “who are they as a person?” A question I heard asked in a training session a few weeks ago was “is the enabler the person’s teacher or student?” A powerful question indeed but one that demands an answer. This question should feature in every staff induction because the question of where power sits is pivotal. Power can be “power over” or “power to” and power must always be with the person accessing support. The “power to” aspect of this relates to the enabler facilitating the growth of personal power and enablement thus enabling the person to develop the confidence and self-belief required to build and grow their lives. The key here is ensuring the person holds the control at all times during all conversations and exploration. It’s not about “doing to” it’s about enabling and facilitating – in other words; “working with”.
Alongside the challenge to move from time and task commissioning to more flexible approaches lies the challenge to providers of all hues to think beyond people’s immediate needs to the quality of life the individual has. What is left in an individuals’ life when one removes the meeting of assessed need and connections with paid support? Are we talking about people simply existing or truly enjoying a quality of life?