Institutions come in all sizes, but they all begin with separation. Such separation shapes the identity of the people who live in them – not just how they are seen by others but also how they see themselves and their place in the world. My brother Matthew grew up in institutions. Living away from us firstly in a hostel and then in a number of group homes. That was a long time ago and much has changed since then. We have come a long way down a path that has helped us to create a real place of belonging for Matthew – in his own home and a community of his choosing. In this article I am exploring what it took from within us, for this change to occur. It started with a ‘leap of faith’.
I had an insightful experience recently around leaps. I needed to make a decision around something that felt emotionally hard and I was encouraged to try something different to my usual ‘think it out’ approach. Somebody close to me suggested I try a process to gain a different perspective to get me out of my head. This person has much experience helping others who have the same affliction.
The process was to externalise the decision, to help me move from my head to using my body and objects. I was asked to choose objects to represent the decisions or the problems as I saw them and then I had to place them wherever they made sense to me. Very interestingly, the decision I perceived most difficult was the one I placed closest to me. The person invited me to take a step into that place in order to feel what it was like to be there. I had perceived this step as an enormous leap, too hard to take safely really, but there it was, in front of me, only a footstep away.
I was then told to literally step in to this new space and yet I hesitated… a lot. I saw it right there in front of me. Strangely it was very scary to take the step but once I did, I knew as soon as I was there that it was the pathway I wanted. When I was ready this unfathomable leap became just a step.
What I think happened was that I stepped out of my thoughts and their supposed logic and into my gut and heart space. I felt the change I needed to make and this made all the difference. When I felt it, I couldn’t talk it away – there was no going back. All the difficulties still seemed to be there, in the path of this decision, but my perspective on them changed. They began to feel less like difficulties and more just things that may (or may not) happen and just a natural part of the process.
Building the stack
This was what it was like for my family in the build up to when we helped Matthew move into his own home. Some of my earliest memories from this time involved a lot of communication within my family about what was wrong with Matthew’s life. A lot of complaining, if you like. But we did it with each other as we shared the inkling that surely life has got to be better than this. During this time we were building our understanding of what it was we were not happy with. This was in the days before self-direction or personalised support and notions like ‘consumer governed’ or ‘family governed’ had not yet crossed our paths.
I also remember being present with other families at conferences and education forums as we grappled with the question of ‘what could be’. The conversations started with all the things that are wrong and moved over time to better ways of doing things to not only replace them, but to make them obsolete. Piece by piece we were building a vision of a better way.
For my family the vision we were building included Matthew having his own home and a crucial element of this was wanting Matthew to not have to face strangers any more. The pain of dropping him off at the group home to a stranger who didn’t know him or how to communicate with him or even take care of him was excruciating. The heart ache of that was too much. Imagining him at one moment being understood, nestled and loved, and the next moment being completely on his own amongst others, fending for himself, was awful.
Inside us at that stage were murmurings that things weren’t right, but we needed an external trigger that helped us see the possibilities. All we needed was a spark to ignite us and turn these imaginings into possibilities. We needed to be exposed to the possibility that somebody with a severe intellectual disability and autism who doesn’t speak could have their own home and that other people without disabilities would want to live with this person.
What happens for so many people and families is that they live in systems where others are traditionally given the role of problem-solver. This encourages families to dwell in problems and as they are encouraged to give over their power to others in the belief that those others are the ones who will create the solutions. It can also encourage them to dwell in waiting – waiting for the funding package, waiting for the next service. When people are waiting they are largely passive. It is the path of victimhood. We found this to be a bitter, soulless place to be.
When something else comes in there – I see it as ‘possibility’ – then there is the spark that can lead to a shift. I define possibility as something I have not yet imagined for myself and this is always most powerfully communicated through a peer – that is, seeing that it is possible for someone like me. ‘Possibility’ was the kind of external trigger we needed and once we had that our imaginations ran wild. We dared to imagine him being involved in his community because we saw that others were doing it. We dared to imagine him living with someone who didn’t have a disability because others had shown us it was possible.
‘Possibility’ has got little to do with centres or service providers or case managers or assessments. Ironically, ‘possibility’ dwells in ordinary things that make life great for all of us and makes us want to get up in the morning. These things are the possibilities for all people, even people who most challenge us.
Once we were ignited by possibility, we needed to take ownership of that possibility; see it as not just an idea somebody else had made happen for themselves, but something that could fully take its own shape in Matthew’s life. We were the ones who needed to make this change. It was not the responsibility of anyone else – government, service providers, case-managers, Local Area Co-ordinators etc.
That is not to downplay the importance of collaborating with others. We had many genuine and valuable allies that helped us make our vision for Matthew possible. In fact having professionals on board helped us facilitate new breakthroughs. They were most useful when they were true allies. Allies because they had taken ownership of the part they could play in change. Their work was genuinely transformational and that’s what made them good.
I also remember inviting our long term family friend, Jane, to help us. She became Matthew’s first circle member when we all began talking together. I remember my mother’s tenacity and strength.
Fanning the fire
Once people are ignited then a fire is built. That’s when we see this idea of a fire burning in people’s lives so this is then about creating and tending to what you imagine. Moving from possibility to imagination to then creating that thing that you want. These are really the conditions for personal autonomy, for being in charge.
I remember when we had been overcome with the possibility of Matthew moving into his own home. I would wander the suburb where we imagined his home would be (a suburb close to my university where many of my friends and other young people lived). I would stand in front of lovely homes (not grand homes ) that I thought he would like to live in and picture him there.
It is important to continue to add fuel to your own fire by keeping in touch with peers and possibilities. The point is not to light the fire once, but to keep it burning and the more people attend to a fire the longer it is going to burn. We are thinking about this idea of sustainability, of keeping something going, of keeping something alive. For this you must do another potentially challenging thing. You must be with others, especially those that can lovingly challenge you, and you must nurture those relationships. If you do this work on your own you will have a harder job keeping that fire burning.
I know that Matthew’s life, with supportive networks (both paid and unpaid) around him, is something that helps other brothers and sisters to get involved and plan for the future. To feel more able to think about developing, building and sustaining these supports after their parents have died. If there aren’t these networks and all you can see is you, it starts to feel again like an enormous thing you will have some-day to ‘take on’ – but this is for another article!
The lessons I have shared from our experiences with Matthew are relevant both on a personal level but also one much broader. The process I have outlined above is relevant to people looking to create change in systems as well as in the lives of individuals with disability.
The families of today are taking these leaps and being ignited by the ‘possibilities’ shown by other families. They are grabbing the possibilities – stepping in to them, feeding them and making them their own. They are building networks to fan the fire.
My hope for the future is that we can assist each other, from the space of radical change, to grow new organisations, projects and enterprises. Working with people as they do this work for themselves, so that when they take this leap, it might not feel like a jump into the abyss.
This piece of writing came to life in conversation with my friend and mentor, Pam Morris, and a social enterprise mentor, Tracey Allen. Pam’s son moved out of Peat Island institution in NSW. She was the only parent who supported its closure at the time. It didn’t close but her son moved.