When I reflect back on the past year and the tough times our Skills community faced, the key word for what really mattered most to me is gratitude. Gratitude for how the people we serve and their families have adapted their lives, been patient, careful and kind to one another during an otherwise stressful time. Gratitude for our amazing leaders on the front lines and in management who have helped people live their lives as safely as possible. Gratitude for our organization and its ability to quickly translate provincial health orders into our own organizational realities, supporting people we serve in their own homes, throughout the city. Gratitude that we haven’t lost anyone in our Skills community to COVID-19. Gratitude for the leadership everyone has shown in looking out for each other, being empathetic, kind, and offering help in little and big ways. I’m sure the pandemic and all its uncertainty has caused us to reflect on what really matters as individuals and as a community of interconnected people. I’m pleased that our Skills community is using this report to share their personal reflections, stories and learnings about what has really mattered to them over this past year. As an organization, we want to make sure that these essential lessons aren’t forgotten as the pandemic subsides in the coming months. Here are some other important learnings I’ve taken away from this past year.
It’s ok to feel how you feel
As Executive Director of a very fine organization, this year brought about the most uncertainty I’ve ever faced as a leader – working to steward others through tough and ever-changing times, as safely as possible. But I was surprised to learn that, in a crisis, there is comfort in normalizing the emotional ups and downs that come with significant challenges and changes. This seems counterintuitive to traditional models where leaders are expected to assure people that everything will be okay – even if they’re not sure themselves. By socializing the idea that it’s ok to feel how we feel – and helping people create self care routines and support systems to keep going – we helped remove the pressure and expectation that people had to feel or behave in a certain way. This created more space to try new things that might surprise us and boost us up a little bit during a rough time.
One way we socialized this learning was to share this graphic in communications and generative conversations. The truth of this graphic is that a person doesn’t simply move from survival to acceptance to growth in a progressive, linear way. Some days there are moments and feelings of survival, and other moments where our strength shows up and allows us to grow. We recognized that it was normal for individuals to move rapidly between these stages – and in our acceptance and growth moments we would try actions that might move us into strength, compassion and clarity. We all became a little more emotionally intelligent during this past year and learned that being aware of our mental state can help us tune into what really matters and have more empathy for ourselves and others. This acuity allowed our team to grow this past year – and tackle the important challenges we had to face.
Relationships, Belonging, Connection
People with developmental disabilities are too often the most isolated citizens in our communities. For 40 years, Skills Society has been working to remove barriers to connection, relationships, and acceptance for the people we serve. Without a doubt, pandemic safety restrictions led to feelings of isolation for many people, and especially for the people we serve. As a team, we leaned into finding creative ways to grow connections for people and build their relationships with their families and the community. Our community-building initiative led by people with disabilities – the CommuniTEA Infusion Project – pivoted to a virtual platform and included weekly online connection events and other ways to keep active and connected. We were also very fortunate – thanks to a United Way grant – to be able to purchase iPads for those who could not afford to keep connected during these times.
We’re all in this together. This was a phrase we heard over and over from health officials and provincial leaders. I said it myself many times! But as cliche as the phrase became during the pandemic, it contained a deep truth around the importance of connection and the collective sense of purpose we all felt. My hope is that we can build on this spirit long past the pandemic – and that we can centre around the things that really matter. In western world views, there is a cherished and important freedom that each person has a right to be who they want to be as long as it doesn’t infringe on others’ freedoms and rights. In the disability rights space, this is especially important as people with disabilities have historically been held back and oppressed by experts and systems that have defined what they are, what they can achieve and what they should aspire to. The pandemic has brought to the surface a tension between individual rights, freedoms and responsibilities as caring citizens who live together interdependently in the world. Interdependence means one thing that can’t exist without another. It points to the fact that although we might like to think our personal worlds are self-sufficient and independent, the reality is that we depend on countless people and relationships every day – whether we are aware of it or not. To eat and sustain ourselves we rely on the front line grocery store clerks, the food that’s grown all over the world, and the delivery trucks that bring it all to our grocery stores. We rely on the creation of electricity and gas to power and heat our homes. We also wouldn’t have streets and neighbourhoods to live in without systems and experts to keep everything clean and safe.
This tension between individual wishes and collective well-being exists within our Skills family as well. For example, we support people living independently in their own homes – but many of these people have roommates who also receive our services. Each of these individuals has different views, risk tolerances and vulnerabilities related to COVID-19. While everyone had the right to express their wishes and risk tolerances during the pandemic, their individual choices had a broader impact with their roommates and out into the community. Our mission was to facilitate conversations between roommates and guardians and create shared roommate agreements so that we could balance individual wishes with those of their roommates. This is a localized example of how interdependence and social contracts play out each and every day – a microcosm of the tension that existed in all of our worlds throughout the pandemic. Right now, health experts advise that the end of the pandemic will rely on 75% of the population choosing to get fully vaccinated. If we – as individuals – choose not to get vaccinated against physician advice, this will have an interdependent ripple effect on the whole of society. It will prevent us all from getting back to the things we enjoyed doing before the pandemic. We now recognize what interdependence looks like and the responsibility we all have for the other human beings we share the world with. We will lean into this interdependence and the truth around what being ‘in this together’ really means.
The final thing that stood out for me as we stewarded Skills Society throughout the past year was remembering to be kind. As complicated as life is, it is the kindness and care of others that allows us to come through tough times. I became emotional many times this past year seeing the expressions of kindness and compassion in our Skills community. When I spoke to team leaders on the front line in the early days of the pandemic, their passion, fierce loyalty and desire to protect the people we serve was the most heartwarming thing to witness – and something I will never forget. Our employees are true heroes and we are forever grateful for their unwavering commitment. In a crisis, there is certainly darkness, fear and uncertainty – but as the late, great Mr. Rogers used to say, “in those moments of fear and crisis, look for the helpers, you will always find there are people who are helping.”
I also often heard that the people we support were the pillars of positivity and kindness to staff and those around them. As we often say, people with developmental disabilities are citizen role models we can learn from – embodying what it means to be a good human and a valuable citizen in our community. It is heartening to get a glimpse of this wisdom and kindness through their stories that are shared throughout the report.
I’m reminded of a story from the great cultural anthropologist Magaret Mead. Dr. Mead was asked what the first signs of human civilization were. It was expected that she would respond with something technical like a wheel or agricultural techniques. Instead, Mead picked up a 10,000-year-old human femur bone that had been broken and then fully healed over time. Mead explained that the first sign of civilization was when humans looked out with care and kindness towards one another and cooperated in community. To heal our ancient ancestor’s broken thigh bone, it took a community to care for and support the injured person. She explained that in the animal world this doesn’t happen as much – but as humans we have an extraordinary capacity for kindness, selflessness and organizing care. I think we can sometimes forget this simple truth of kindness in our complex world. But leaning into this truth will matter as much into our future as it did in our ancient past.
As the pandemic hopefully comes to a close soon, we will all want to get back to some pre pandemic connection and activities and not want to have to think about quarantine times, masking, distancing, positivity rates, etc… But in that understandable rush to want to forget much about the pandemic, we don’t want to forget the learning about the things in life that really matter as human beings trying to have dignified, good lives, where we are all valued for who we are and have a deeper sense of belonging.
Thank you to everyone in our Skills family for being there for each other. For being patient and protecting each other as best possible. We see your kindness. You matter.