I’m out of a job….yeah!

26 February 2015

I’m out of a job….yeah!

Our guest blogger this month is Jill Faber (HSA Canada associate). Jill shares her experience with what happens when people are given a chance to take the lead.

As I sit down to write this blog I’m not sure where to begin or end because the month of March has been a whirlwind.  What happened, what I witnessed – well I needed it. I needed it to be a better trainer, to be a better person.

It was during this whirlwind in March that a staff member approached me and said “This day reminded me my job should really be to work myself out of a job”. I was shocked; I’ve been using this mantra for myself for years, but have never heard someone else say it so freely.

So, let me tell you how what started as a simple project to provide direct learning to people who use services about their rights and responsibilities when planning with agency staff, turned into something more remarkable and beautiful.  This project did put me out of a job- at least for a couple of days.

It started with some listening to my friends who have disabilities. I asked them how to develop a workshop that is seen as neither condescending nor driven by agency intent.  They gave me some very clear and specific instructions:

“Make sure the people with disabilities are in the front of the room”. Theresa told me how she was sick and tired of going to conferences or workshops where they were the token people with disabilities. She wanted to go where she could hear from and speak to other people with disabilities, not with support staff and not with family.

“You better tell the truth. I hate planning with my agency and I wish they understood that I am capable of planning on my own”. Stephanie was puzzled why I approached her to help me develop a workshop about planning when she had only negative things to say about it. Of course it was for this reason I desperately needed her input. Honesty from the person’s perspective had to be a running theme throughout the day.

“You better make it in plain language and you better use pictures to help people understand what you’re saying”.  Yvonne, who also could be referred to as my final editor, scrutinized and critiqued every PowerPoint slide to ensure the messages were clear and understandable. She is my jargon sheriff.

And so the workshop was developed and then redeveloped. It became the My Life – My Plan Workshop. And though the messages were not new, the delivery and process of learning was. From all the feedback from staff, participants and the self-advocate trainers, the following two decisions, made very early on, had the biggest impact on the positive outcomes for the day.

The workshops were co-facilitated by a person with a disability. There were 10 self-advocates who worked as both table facilitators and some as new trainers.

When I finally realized I needed to step back and let them fully take over, I witnessed how the trainers’ energy and leadership washed over the entire group and all the participants were suddenly “in the front of the room”.

I have never witnessed a group of people with disabilities become the majority, the only right ones in the room, the ones with all the answers. It was spectacular. It was amazing.

Support staffs were not welcomed at the group tables, nor were they allowed to participate, or contribute in any fashion. Most of the day was done in-group discussions, again led by self-advocates at individual tables. Support staffs were asked at the beginning of the day to remain in the back of the room or at a separate table. They were asked to not support anyone in the room unless requested.

So, when left good enough alone at the tables, I watched as the participants and self-advocates supported each other:  helping each other read, helping each other learn, helping each other share.  What I saw was support that I have so rarely seen. Support absent of any judgment, support with honesty, support with true empathy and true consideration. It’s the kind of support we read about in textbooks and those whom we label as needing this kind of support were doing it naturally and easily.

It happened over and over again – the less staff in the room, the more I saw it. Participants eventually stopped turning to the back of the room to their staff and turned to each other. One woman grabbed another woman’s puffer and set it up for her, another woman decided she was going to help a man with a visual impairment all day, guiding him through the room and setting up his meal. I could see the amazement on the staff faces – for which I’m sure I had a similar expression.

The remarks from the staff were equally compelling. “I can’t believe they’re doing this all on their own”. “It’s so hard to step back, but I can’t believe what I’m seeing”.

And then there were the conversations. Participants who had never spoken to a group before stood in front of strangers and told their stories. By the end of most sessions almost all the participants willingly stood and spoke out.  It wasn’t because I encouraged them – I had nothing to do with it. It was the encouragement and faith from their fellow self-advocates at each table that made them feel they were capable and worthy to speak out.

I finally stepped back.  I gave up my reigns as co-facilitator (I know now anyone who has facilitated with me is having a good laugh – I don’t let go of the room easily). They asked it of me. The self-advocates kept saying, “We want to do more. Jill you need to do less”. Then it was like watching super heroes reveal themselves. I know this is a silly analogy, but truly it’s what I saw. In all my desire to believe in them, they proved they were so much more. I was ashamed of the assumptions I had made and equally delighted for being so so wrong.

So I sat and watched. I sat and listened. I sat…and I sat in the back of the room. I watched them lead, tell stories, take care of the group.  I sat…and watched as they put me out of my job because they asked me to, because I did, because they can.


Note: In Canada “self-advocate” is how some people with disabilities have asked to be referred as when doing work such as described above.

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