I remember the first time I heard the notion that somehow working in the Community Living field was related to our values. Sadly, it took me years and years to finally understand the connection.

When I was in my 20’s, and beginning my life-long journey working with people who live with the challenges associated with an intellectual disability, we were just beginning to support people who had typically been living in Institutions. Many had learned complex and challenging behaviours and many of those behaviours seemed inconsistent with a successful life in the community.

We embarked on many, many hours of training to “manage” these behaviours. It was as if a war had been declared on the behaviours and, as soldiers fighting with God on our side, we would prevail. Our job was to extinguish problem behaviours. Our weapons were the (then) modern tools of behaviour modification. Reward the behaviours we want and ignore the behaviours we don’t. Seemed so logical... until it didn’t.

We slowly began to understand that people who had not been taught to communicate their needs in ways we might understand had to resort to using their actions rather than their words. Real progress began to be made when we looked at behaviour as communicating unmet needs. Dig deeper and understand the function of the behaviour, address the need and we might make progress.

A very prominent “leader” in the field tried to derail this thinking, which actually led to a much greater understanding on my part. She surmised, “I agree, people are using their behaviour to get their needs met, but it is mostly just ‘attention seeking behaviour’ and therefore if we give in and give the attention, they will just become addicted to our attention...”.

For me, this was the penny dropping. In my life, I had learned hundreds, if not thousands of sophisticated attention seeking behaviours. They were, in fact, key to my own survival, self worth and self esteem - my own sense of value. Who among us is not addicted to attention?

Up until then, I saw people with developmental disabilities as fundamentally different than me. That somehow their needs were entirely driven by their disabilities. The central challenge of their life was overcoming the disability. I saw the central challenges of my life as overcoming self doubt, loneliness, engaging in meaningful activities like work, etc.

The moment the words came from her mouth, I felt a sense of relief. Instantly I began to understand that people, regardless of their intellectual capacity, needed the same things. Friends, meaningful days, relationships and a sense of self worth are central to everyone’s well being. (I also realized that intellectual capacity was fluid, not fixed - but that is a future blog).

So much of the work being done to understand and support vulnerable populations, centres around understanding that, first and foremost, people need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. Making acceptance and belonging conditional on “appropriate” behaviour dooms people to a life of isolation and virtually ensures nothing will change. Accepting and valuing people for who they are is key to the development of self worth and self actualization.

It starts with seeing value in everyone.

Written by: Clint Hames