The R word. The H word. And now the C words: consumers, clients. When can we stop using words to differentiate “us” from “them”? People with disabilities, people in our programs, individuals—do these work? How do we maintain compliance within the current system but still move forward to change it? It was Maya Angelou who said, “I knew then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I can do better.”
If language is how we activate our values, what do these words and phrases reveal about us, our perspectives, our intentions and our services? And how do we take buzz words like person first (a good first step) or person centered and transform them into valid change agents for our practices?
At our Person Center Thinking (PCT) Training by Bob Sattler from The Learning Community, we learned that PCT is an ongoing search for effective ways to deal with challenging barriers and conflicting demands. It’s a way to assist people in defining and pursuing desirable futures. PCT takes clarity, commitment and courage. It’s based on respect for the dignity and completeness of every person. To be person centered, we need to ask why (a lot) and consider others’ perspectives. It’s not us versus them; it’s simply us.
The goal of PCT is to move from a service life to a community life. Bob reminded us that we are not trying to make people independent, but autonomous. After all, how many of us are actually, truly independent? Maybe independence too is a buzz word—one that was well intentioned but not quite accurate?
One focus of the training was the importance of environment. Environment is not a disability issue; everyone is affected by it. Environments can be toxic, tolerated, supportive or healing. A toxic environment can cause depression, aggression or withdrawal. A tolerated environment can lead to feelings of helplessness or powerlessness. Many people live in toxic or tolerated environments and they result in one person (the paid counselor) having power over the other.
A supportive environment allows people to grow and blossom. This should be the accepted minimum standard for everyone. A healing environment is needed by those who’ve been hurt in toxic or tolerated environments, and the focus is on restoration and wellness. Both supportive and healing environments foster a sense of empowerment.
While there are distinctions between the kinds of environments we live, work and play in, we can be in multiple environments at the same time. Environments are powerful and multidimensional. They can often be the cause of a symptom we treat; what we see and hear depends on what we’re looking and listening for. This is a reminder to be self-reflective, to continuously look at what’s working and what’s not working, and to address issues effectively.
When we talk about creating person centered lives, we can’t prioritize what’s important to people over what’s important for them. PCT doesn’t mean giving up on health and safety issues for the sake of pure joy and constant happiness. A person centered life is one where a desirable lifestyle has been purposely crafted—it’s full of engaging experiences and rewarding possibilities. It emphasizes dreams and hopes. It fulfills who the person is rather than meeting the needs of the person’s diagnosis.
PCT tells us not to fix people but to support them. Bob’s playful phrase “Don’t should on people!” helps instill this value. And because PCT is part of a process of improving how we support people, it’s important to remember that we’re doing the best with what we know. While Maya Angelou’s words are eloquent and poetic, we can also refer to Bob’s wise words: “My name is [counselor’s name] and it’s been [X] days since I’ve tried to fix someone.”