Now, finally, we can begin to grow, mature.
For agencies to provide the best care there has to be a flow of communication between service giver and service recipient. There needs to be a process of feedback from the member base as to the success or failure of the care which is offered. This is not a process to be feared, instead it is to be encouraged. Staff want to do a good job, but getting little feedback or false feedback does little but entrench what is into what always will be. I remember really wanting, almost begging, someone with a disability to give me feedback, to tell me what he really wanted. I knew we were all missing the boat. But he just smiled a subservient smiled and assured me everything was all right.
But then, on reflection, it made sense to me. The very people being asked to give feedback are provided care, service they need, from the very people they are being asked to be critical about. We have all had the experience of having a bad teacher at school or a bad supervisor at work, we all feared speaking up because the target of our displeasure had power in our lives. We'd rather put up with bad treatment than risk getting worse treatment. Silence is a result of hierarchy and power imbalance.
A man with a disability likes his staff but wishes some things could be different between them. He's unsure of how to speak up but knows that if he wants things to change he has too. He attends and abuse prevention class taught by two people he trusts, he learns about abuse and he learns about speaking up. He speaks to the two teachers and says, 'I like my staff but I want him to be a little nicer to me and I don't understand why he does some of the things he does and makes the decisions that he makes.' When asked if he wants help to discuss this, the individual with a disability thinks and then says 'yes'. After a chat with the agencies Program Director, she meets with the member and the member makes it clear that he likes the staff, that he doesn't want the staff punished, that what is happening is not abuse, that he just wants a few changes. The Director says that she will meet with his staff and the member says, 'I'd like to be at that meeting.'
The meeting happens. The member expresses his concerns to the staff who is surprised but receptive. They work through some things, each is misunderstanding the other a little bit. It only takes a bit of jigging for them both to feel listened to and in sync. The meeting ends with them agreeing to review how its going in a couple of weeks.
OK, get this. This happened this week at work.
I believe that this happened because there has been several years of work to make sure that people with disabilities feel safe. Our focus has been on abuse prevention and the development of advocacy skills amongst the members of Vita. As we did this work there was a vague hope that the sense of security and the welcoming of voice would make it possible for people to begin to discuss, not abuse, but the quality of their care. How we interact and treat each other. I wondered if we encourage voice it would mean that people would not longer need to use behaviour to communicate. We all know that problem behaviour is a means of communication - and perhaps the only viable one when one is at the bottom of a very large hierarchy.
We realized as we discussed the ramifications of what happened at Vita that we've been seeing signs of this coming within the organization. As we have increasingly involved the self advocates in the life of the organization there seemed to be an interesting shift. It's as if our members got in an elevator and pushed the up button. Their skills in using voice and speaking up meant that there has been a shrinking in hierarchy and with that an reshuffling of power.
And none of it has been scary. That staff, can you imagine how good he felt. Someone in his care trusted him enough to give him honest feedback without fear of punishment or reprisals. OK, hands up, how many readers would feel that they could do the same with their supervisor. Ah, wouldn't you like an environment of safety where your voice was welcomed.
Some of our journey towards becoming a safe agency has been difficult and we made many mistakes. But we carried on believing that the purpose of safety was more important that the frustration of error. And now, a man comes forward and says, 'let's talk, reasonably, about my care.'
He could only do that, he would only do that, if we had demonstrated that we actually did care about his care.