Thursday, January 08, 2009


I remember it, now, very well. I was very young and an 'instructor' at a sheltered industry. At a coffee break I was sitting around with a couple other staff and we were bitching about the agency for whom we worked. 'They' didn't care about people with disabilities. 'They' had no understanding of the needs of people with disabilities. 'They' were more concerned with appearances than practices. In other words, we were having a great break.

As we sat there a young woman with a disability indicated, through non verbal means in a way unique to her, that she needed to go to the washroom. The staff whose assistance was being sought acknowledged the request but went on talking. I'm sure at that moment we all, I know I did, felt annoyed at being interupted during our break. After only a moment's pause we were back at it ... 'they' put their needs ahead of the needs of people with disabilities. Yeah that was a good one we all agreed.

I know that many of you will be tired of my yapping on and on about the WheelTrans driver who left me off in the freezing cold. But, remember, there was the story a couple days ago about the nice driver doing nice things. I need to refer to these two situations again.

Because I am still learning from them.

WheelTrans does not exist. It is an amorphous conglomeration of people - it is not a thing, it is not a person - it has no shape. Organizations are often spoken of as if they exist somehow, somewhere - but they do not. Organizations are loose federations of people - each person possessing a different face, carrying a distinct character, having a unique voice. Everyone that comes into contact with each face will see that face as the face of the organization.

In that moment that I was being dropped off in the cold, the face of the WheelTrans was that which belonged to the driver. He was WheelTrans. 'They' did not exist, he did. He was them.

In that moment where the driver was really kind to the elderly couple, the face of WheelTrans belonged to only him. He was WheelTrans. 'They' cared because 'he' cared.

As we sat, as staff, talking about 'them' we didn't realize that 'we' were 'them' to that woman who sat and waited for a basic need to be met ... waited while we bitched about an agency that didn't care. Not realizing that 'we' were 'them' to her. That the agency doesn't exist outside our actions, doesn't take form other than our form, doesn't speak other than with our voices.

At Vita, where I work, we have a pledge of support which staff say. In it we say, I am Vita, therefore Vita is me. I fully understand that now. I cannot complain about my agency when I AM my agency.

People who work in service, particularly those in direct support, often feel powerless in the organization. Yet they are often the most powerful person in the lives of those they say they serve. In that dyad, in that moment, the quality of care will be determined.

I see the look of that woman who waited to go to the washroom ... and I know now what she was thinking ...

"You don't care."

There was no 'they' involved.


lavendersparkle said...

I can see what you're saying and I think that it's important to remember, but on the other hand, the policies of an organisation can have a huge effect upon the ability of front line staff to do their job. If an organisation is understaffed, carers aren't going to be able to give enough attention to all of their clients. If an organisation underpays its staff, carers are going to be tired from working second jobs or anxious about how they're going to make ends meet. If an organisation does not provide the correct equipment and training a carer isn't going to be able to safely help a client without endangering their safety. All of these decisions to cut costs and quality of care are made by people, but they're often made by different people to the ones clients meet day to day.

Anonymous said...

lavendersparkle, what you say is true, but when I interact with someone with a disabilitiy, my attitude is my decision. If I'm mean, I may excuse myself because I'm tired or frustrated and I may blame the ACL I work for, but it was still me who was mean. Dave's post got me to see that for the first time.

Heather said...

Hi Lavendersparkle (fabulous name!)
You're absolutely right...decisions are made that sometimes get in the way of staff doing the best possible job...but you have to do the best you can with what you've got...just do whatever comes to your hand in the best way you possibly can.
Michael Kendrick has written an excellent article on what one person can do...check it out on

Helen Keller wrote this...
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

Dave...I LOVE YOU!! Thanks again for continuing to reflect and learn...your insights are is
so much appreciated!

E said...

"People who work in service, particularly those in direct support, often feel powerless in the organization. Yet they are often the most powerful person in the lives of those they say they serve. In that dyad, in that moment, the quality of care will be determined."

Another pearl of wisdom to go with my morning coffee. Thanks Dave.
: )

Colleen said...

Hi Heather:

Could you please give the name of Michael Kendrick's article - his site lists many.

Dear Dave:

I think that this discussion is so important. As someone who teaches aspiring support workers I find it really difficult to get through to them that they have so much influence in a person's life just by the attitude they choose - they determine the quality of care. If that quality is lacking or even abusive they cannot take it back, they can apologize but that will not erase the harm.

Again Dave I am in awe of your ability, your determination, to reflect on your experience and learn and use it to help others. You are an amazing person.


Heather said...

Hi Colleen
Michael's article is called

'Some observations on what one person can do in human services'


Belinda said...

Heather, thank you for sharing that amazing website, full of wonderful resources!

Reformed Anon. Girl in Pain said...

"People who work in service, particularly those in direct support, often feel powerless in the organization"
exactly Dave! The organization I work for often changes policies that directly affect us (front line staff- although that term makes me think of a war quite honestly) and the people we support.
I am somewhat of a s%^& disturber at my work because I really look at myself as employed by the people I serve, if they are safe, happy, healthy and living a good life I consider it a job well done and a day well spent!
Soli Deo Gloria