Thursday, January 13, 2011


The blog I wrote the other day about the elevator at Vita changing the floor number has caused a lot of discussion here on the blog, to me directly via email and, of course, at Vita. I thought I'd tell you how we, Vita, as an organization responded both to the situation and to the blog that I wrote. Several things happened right away.

First, I had to work through the issue myself, realize that something important had happened that I had to notice, then I had to write and rewrite and then rerewrite the piece trying to get it to say what I wanted to say. Then I published it on the blog but I also sent it to the whole organization through the 'all staff' button on our email system. 'All staff' literally means 'all staff' as 'all staff' have individual email addresses through the organization and all sites have computer access. I added a commentary and sent it with the re-line, "please read and discuss".

Here's the commentary I added for Vita staff:

As a service agency that serves people with intellectual disabilities I think we have to constantly strive to remember that the people we serve all have very significant disabilities. Even those who live in SIL and those who hold down regular jobs. Intellectual disability is the most ‘disabling’ of all disabilities as it affects cognitive life, communication, processing, learning. We can become so comfortable with ‘difference’ that we don’t notice it and if we don’t notice it we don’t accommodate for it. Let’s remember that part of our job is to make the world easier for those we provide service to … ask some questions …

1) when a change happens (like the elevator in the situation above) do we take time to explain to all individuals so they don’t face unexpected situations

2) do we ensure that we use plain language and are we careful when we give instructions or state expectations

3) do we make sure that we use positive reinforcement to ensure that people know we appreciate how hard people are trying

4) do we remain patient when people are struggling

5) do we resist ‘soft labels’ like ‘stubborn’ or ‘attention seeker’ and instead understand the impact of a person’s disability

6) do we take time to learn how each individual’s disability impacts their learning and understanding, do we know their strengths so that we can teach them how to best use what they have

7) do we remember that people with disabilities don’t get up at night and plan how to frustrate us … our frustration is mostly because someone is frustrated themselves

8) do we look for additional stresses when we see someone lose skills or suddenly stop doing what they used to

9) do we make use of classes like anger management and self esteem so that members can learn skills and strategies regarding their disability and the frustrations they face

10)do we remember that our ‘job’ is understanding and support and that the best tool we have is empathy.

As you can see the situation yesterday really affected me and reminded me that those we serve really do walk a steep path and more often need an arm than they need impatience.

(End of Commentary to Staff)

After I sent it out I had to leave for most of the day. By the time I got back to my computer and opened my email, here's what happened.

a) I had a whackload of emails, more than for any 'all staff' notices and articles I've ever sent

b) one staff upon reading it went and immediately posted a note stating the change so that all who used the elevator would know and not be confused

c) several staff wrote saying that they'd ensure that all members who use the elevators would be shown that a change was made

d) emails came from maintenance, from finance, from human resources and from all levels of management from directors to front line staff to members - all saying that the reminder was important for them

e) the error in the elevator numbering was reported to the elevator company and it will be changed back quickly

f) several supervisors wrote to say that the email and discussion questions would be used as part of their next staff meeting in their area of the agency

g) the rights group (a member based group within Vita) wrote to say that they would discuss this with members as they had to learn to be patient with each other in meetings and interactions as well

Throughout the organization there was an immediate response. Let's acknowledge that this is a big organization spread across Canada's largest city and over two regions - but every part of the organization responded with a 'right on' let's use this opportunity to refresh ourselves with an important part of our mission statement 'practicing respect'.

I've always thought that one of the most important hallmarks of a healthy organization is the ability and the willingness to reflect and honestly evaluate current practises. I think it's really easy to forget that human services need, primarily, to be humane. And for humanity to be the focus, honest and regular reflection is important. I was thrilled to see that a simple email caused really good people to pause, reflect and take action.

And you know when good people pause, reflect and take action, you know that can only lead to growth. At work, we consider this a good bit of reVITAlization.


Clay said...

It looks like you've had a huge impact on your organization and community. But then, it does sound like a pretty good organization to begin with. I only wish you could "translate" it for our organizations 100 miles to the south of you!

Sher said...

I sure wish the organization that I work for was "Vita-esque". Sounds like a very responsive, forward thinking group. Thanks for reminding some of us that have been working "in the system" for a while, that such organizations are indeed out there. It helps us strive to be better.

Anonymous said...

Wow. So often the response to "hey, folks, we could do better and we should" is along the lines of "not our fault/nobody told me/not my job/we followed the rules".

It's great to read about an organization where the response is "yes, we can and should do better, here's where we see we can improve, and let's talk about more ways to do so".

I imagine it's taken a lot of attention and energy from a lot of people at Vita to cultivate and encourage that attitude. Impressive, admirable, and definitely something to emulate!

Myrrien said...

Oh I wish my organisation tried to make change like that instead of making it without consulting people or informing them or even becoming defensive. A wonderful example.

Sandi said...

This post gave me chills of pleasure. To see them 'getting it'. WONDERFUL!!

Stephanie said...

It's great that you got such a swift and thorough response!

I shared the story you told, and it really helped someone I know understand that intellectual disability is a more complicated issue than he believes.

It's definitely a good lesson-story, and it's great that people are really getting it and really responding.