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
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
To purchase this book, visit www.inclusion.com.
"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
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 (www.centreforwelfarereform.org)
"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 experience...it 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