Contemporary “Community Living” philosophy has been based on the notion that the sense of belonging or inclusion is a powerful motivator for personal growth. Hard to believe it took us so long to enshrine this in our approach to supporting people in their life journeys. Yet, there are still many, many programs and services which are sheltered and segregate people from their communities.
As well, despite ample evidence that supporting children in inclusive environments provides a significant benefit to all students, not just students who are “labelled”, “inclusion” is always threatened.
I’m reminded of the Facebook ‘memes’ which suggest that we should be looking after our veterans and seniors before we support refugees into our country. Somehow the meme thinks it is acceptable to denigrate refugees by evoking two venerated, highly valued groups, seniors and veterans.
So too, do people find little trouble evoking “normal” children as the venerated group against those with “special needs”. It seems to be acceptable to many to suggest that “special needs” kids will disrupt the learning of the more valued group.
Lately, I have been following the work of Dr. Gabor Mate, a medical doctor and researcher who has spent most of his practice working on the downtown east side of Vancouver with some of the most devalued people on earth. People who suffer from chronic mental illness, drug addictions and homelessness, society’s new lepers. They have been herded into the devalued areas of communities, or worse - into the bush, and just like their biblical predecessors, vilified and pilloried as criminals, unclean and a danger to peace and order.
What is remarkable is that Dr. Mate, through his years of research, is saying that the solution starts with … belonging. Dr. Mate suggests that the population he supports can often trace their addictions back to traumatic, hurtful events in their past - whether this is life in a residential school, sexual abuse in an institution or brain injury or disease. His research suggests that it is trauma, which causes pain - both emotional and physical - that is at the root of addiction. The drugs and alcohol remove the pain - temporarily. The solution… love, support and belonging. Giving people a sense that they are welcome as they are, where they are, in their lives and heal the pain with love and acceptance. I am certainly understating all of the complex supports that are also required, including replacing the illegal drugs used with more appropriate, legal drugs and ensuring safe and secure housing. However, progress begins to be made when we simply understand that the behaviour is connected to trauma and pain, not a desire to be rebellious or criminal. Rebellion and criminality are the byproducts that occur without supports.
When we begin to look at the Community Living field and apply the principles to supporting people with very complex needs, expressed through equally challenging behaviours, we know two things: The behaviours are a byproduct of a lack of support and that solutions start with belonging and acceptance.
How many people have we labelled “Behaviour Problems” and embarked on “aversive” programs to extinguish behaviours? How many children are denied a chance to be included in with their peers because we fail to understand their pain or their trauma? It starts by accepting and including the person where they are, how they are.
Then, once anchored in belonging, understanding that a person’s behaviour is a perfectly logical response to what they are feeling at that moment is key to knowing how to help.
At Pathways, one of our core beliefs was always "All people, regardless of their perceived ability, are read to work, live and play in the community." This value speaks to the notion that success is contingent on acceptance and belonging.