Conversations on Citizenship & Person-Centered Work

Conversations on Citizenship is a "collection of brilliant threads, tied together by editors John O'Brien and Carol Blessing around the issues of the citizenship of people with disabilities and of overcoming the barriers that are still preventing full access to society," (Simon Duffy, The Centre for Welfare Reform). The book is a series of transcriptions of carefully selected video-taped interviews with key leaders from the Inclusion movement that shows how the history social injustice has been instrumental in turning moral outrage into practical tools for creating a fairer and more inclusive society.

Conversations on Citizenship is the companion guide to the Citizen-Centered Leadership Community of Practice course, around which the video- taped interviews are centered. A copy of the book is included with every paid registration to the Citizen-Centered Leadership Community of Practice course.

An excerpt from Conversations on Citizenship & Person-Centered Work:

Chapter Title: Some common threads (pg. 19)

By: John O'Brien

If we had not already used the title, this collection of interviews would have been called Voices of Experience.* Those who responded to Carol Blessing's invitation to reflect on their practice of supporting personal and organizational change have contributed to, and learned from, deep changes in their overlapping fields of organization development, community organizing, support for employment, and planning and working with people with disabilities in person-centered ways. Their work for social change has continued through decades, yet no one feels like their work is done. Each voice in the chapters that follow is distinctive, but some common threads appear over and again. Here are eight.

Our work with people and communities and organizations makes a positive difference when it is grounded in attending with care to what people want more of, to what people care about, to what gives meaning and serves higher purpose, to gifts and capacities and interests, to what works as people take action. This kind of attention distinguishes the work represented in these interviews from a more common approach which encourages a focus on what people want to avoid, to diagnosing deep problems and enumerating deficiencies, to scheming about how to market and control and incentivize so people will do as they are told.

They have a right to discover their distinctive ways to exercise the responsibilities of active citizenship. It demeans people with disabilities and deprives our communities to cast them in passive roles as clients to be supervised and serviced or consumers to be satisfied. The proper role of human service, and the proper use of public money, is to support people to discover, develop, and deliver their contributions to the families, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, networks and associations that define our communities.

Instead, an elaborate command and control system based on a relentless focus on deficiencies in people with disabilities, their families, and their communities leaves those who count on its services to work out their lives in separate, professionally designed and organized worlds. The point of person-centered work and supported employment is to break open these constricting worlds. Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act express the hopes of people with disabilities but leave a great deal of work to be done. This involves deconstructing both the most socially common narratives of disability as disease in search of cure and the physical and organizational designs that contain, control, and blunt the talents of people with disabilities and those who assist them. This deconstruction will be best guided by an appreciative focus that guides a creative search for meaning.

As younger people, those who speak here entered a field in turmoil over the place of people with disabilities in society. We have been personally and practically involved in rendering institutions unnecessary by creating local settings and good supports, in opening typical classrooms in neighborhood schools to new learners, in assisting those defined as unemployable into good jobs. There was a climate of controversy, conflict, and uncertainty about how to make things happen. Ways of assisting people were being invented as we went along. The situation was fluid and central controls were weaker and commanded less respect (or fear) than they currently do. In this situation we became more and more deeply impressed with the resilience and creativity of people with disabilities themselves. Many, many of the people we assisted accepted and improved our imperfect and sometimes clumsy efforts and greatly improved their lives. Despite high profile resistance and rejection, we also benefited from the willingness and ability of typical classmates, neighbors, and co-workers to join in the work of inclusion when it was about making a particular person welcome and successful. This is not theory, it is what we have lived.

While large numbers of people with disabilities have the assistance they need to benefit from inclusive education, live in their own homes, and bring home pay from good jobs, larger numbers do not. What's more, the systems that dispense public money have grown rigid with detail complexity and too many of the service organizations that people count on remain stuck in patterns that reinforce separation and control. The challenge is to generate social innovation in a very constrained environment that seems to have lost a way to activate its higher purpose at the same time that its managers can't seem to avoid attaching the tags "person-centered" and "self-determined" to every activity. This climate breeds cynicism and caution where trust and courage are most needed.

of a kind that engages everyone in the risky business of adapting to new possibilities. Waiting for a single hero to deliver change is no more useful than expecting an authority figure to guarantee that there will be no risks or failures.

The problem is not with any of the approaches, which continue to set positive directions and generate good ideas for making progress when they are applied with mindfulness and care by people with good training. We lose confidence (and some of us become a bit testy) when person-centered plans are treated as a sort of mindless word magic, disconnected from a context in which people can act resourcefully on what the planning discloses as meaningful. Unless people have allies committed to supporting the next good steps along their life journey, not much can happen. If an organizational climate of avoidance of possibility and compliance with rules controls people and their allies, not much can happen even if an organization swallows person-centered planning whole. We see person-centered planning as a means to guide the personal creativity and organizational innovation necessary for people with disabilities to act in valued social roles as contributing citizens. Without commitment to build social contexts that can support this higher purpose, person-centered planning is a distraction.

The contribution that the practices associated with person-centered work and employment support can make to people with disabilities and their communities depends on what those of us who choose to offer assistance bring to the relationship. The primary task is supporting the person to convene people who have been or are open to being recruited into active support of a good future that includes the person's contributions. The more deeply this whole group can listen, the more strongly they believe in the person, the more vividly they can imagine possibilities, the more widely they are connected, the more creatively they can see ways to move forward, the more courageously they can enter into agreements that engage their integrity, the more likely cycles of planning and acting will generate good changes. Professional skill matters in working out the accommodations and forms of assistance that will be of most use in dealing with whatever difficulties people's disabilities may pose as they go about creating a positive future, but unless people have allies who are aligned with that future, professional skill is likely to be sterile. Assisting meaningful employment and working in a person-centered way are applied arts, developed in communities of practice and nourished by what can only be captured in poetry and imagery.

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Book Reviews

"If there was ever a time when we need to 'remember the soul of our work', this is it. For readers who don't always start at the beginning of a book - like me - can I particularly draw attention to pages 124&125 where O'Brien reworks a little what for 30 years we have been calling the 'five accomplishments', starting now from five valued experiences - belonging, choosing, contributing, sharing ordinary places and being respected - as a simple but powerful way of keeping us focused on what is important."

David Towell in response to Max Neill's book review, December 2011

"The Centre for Welfare Reform's biggest debt is to the social innovators whose ideas are described in this book. In a series of interviews with the key personalities from the Inclusion Movement, we discover how moral outrage at social injustice has been transformed into practical tools for creating a fairer and more inclusive society."

Simon Duffy (

"I just got my copy of the book delivered here in Australia...I've not been able to put it down... I think it is quite brilliant and THE most helpful book I've read on the topics... it has the clarity and wisdom of absolutely rings with honesty and hope...and it expresses the heartfelt humanity that is, I think, an expression of love for the work...everyone who does this work needs to read it... thank you so much for it"

Heather Simmons, Perth, Western Australia