Patterns & Principles We’ve Learned That Support People In Their Endeavor For The Good Life

Co-authored by the Skills Society senior leadership team – Bev Hills, Shawn Depner, Linda Marchand, Sandi Pesklevis, Karen Huta, Pat Conrad, Ben Weinlick for the 2018 AGM report. 

This year the senior leadership team decided to put a couple of our core values – Seek Creative Collaborations and Embrace Complexity into action for the writing of our annual report. Rather than each of us doing separate articles for the report, we decided to work together to co-author a piece. What was really interesting, was that in preparing for this article it allowed us the rare and much needed opportunity to take time to step back, reflect, and really dig in to what we have heard from the folks we serve and what we have learned over the years that helps our organization to support people to have the best conditions to attain the good life.

We felt it was especially important this year to share what we see as important guiding principles to shape our collective work as we navigate the future. At this time in Alberta many of the founding people in the disability services sector who led the way in liberation and disability rights work are retiring. We know that their knowledge could be easily lost along with the historical learning of what works and doesn’t work in supporting people with disabilities to lead good lives. Loss of this knowledge might cause us to repeat mistakes that could be avoided. For continued learning, growth and innovation which has always been in the DNA of Skills Society, we recognize that  we need to deeply know our history, traditions, and stories and at the same time be open to new possibilities and insights. As Canadian Social Innovation Leader in Disability Services Al Etmanski says –

“Innovation is a mixture of the old and the new with a dash of surprise.”

Guiding Principles Not Best Practices

Situations we face in our collective work are complex because it mainly involves working with people. People, whether those we serve, our employees, allies, and funders have unique needs, interests and perspectives. Situations are less often black and white and more often grey because we all have our unique stories, views and truths. Rules don’t work so well when something that is right for one person might be wrong for another. And so, in order to better navigate complexity, best practice rules won’t serve us as well as guiding principles. As complexity theorist and social innovator Michael Quinn-Patton suggests,

“Principles provide guidance for action in the face of complexity… Best practices are specific prescriptions (recipes) about what to do. In contrast, principles provide guidance that must be interpreted, applied and adapted situationally.” (Developmental Evaluation, 2011)

On the horizon

Before getting to guiding principles, we wanted to share our perspective on the landscape we are seeing in the current disability services ecosystem and what we see coming on the horizon.

Being constantly asked to do more with less is a danger to our sector and to the folks we serve

Over the years, there has been a trend towards government funders using the language of aiming for procuring high quality inclusion and quality of life outcomes, while at the same time doing the opposite of what supports those outcomes through reducing the resources and funds needed to achieve high quality outcomes. We get asked to do more with less. This trend causes organizations to cut back services, positions and resources which means we are less equipped to navigate the complex work of supporting high quality of life outcomes. At its worst, being asked to do more with less can lead to organizations  providing services that are not fully meeting the needs of people in service and ultimately unsafe. At a certain point, we may have to draw a line and push funders to understand that further cuts will make services unsafe and nowhere near what it takes to support high quality of life outcomes that everyone has the right to. This would be a tough stance to take. Our first choice is always to seek opportunities to work together on issues like this. We have a long history of creative collaborations with government funders and hope that relationship can continue long into the future for the sake of the over 350 people we serve.

Other pressures related to being asked to do more with less

  • Most of the postsecondary disability studies programs in Alberta have closed down, which means we have a much less educated workforce making the ability to achieve high quality outcomes for folks more difficult.
  • With a less educated workforce, organizations are tasked with training and mentoring staff to navigate complexity and support high quality of life outcomes. Unfortunately we are not funded adequately to provide robust training around supporting the whole person.
  • We’re expected to support people to achieve high social inclusion outcomes. People with disabilities are still the most isolated and marginalized citizens in our communities. The work of supporting people to find a sense of belonging and contribute their unique abilities as full citizens is very complex and takes highly skilled people to do it well. Evidence also shows that when a person has deeper social inclusion in community, abuse instances decrease and people are safer.
  • Due to the low staff wages which are set through the government funding, many Community Support Workers (CSWs) work two or three jobs in order to meet the cost of living requirements to support their families. This can lead to burn-out, and may affect how present employees are in their work of supporting people with disabilities.

Unintended consequences of more rules and regulations can end up limiting opportunities for the good life

There is a complex tension when it comes to determining who is responsible to ensure that someone who receives service is as safe as possible, but isn’t so restricted that they can no longer explore, learn, grow and have opportunities for a good life. We are tasked with the responsibility to ensure that our employees are as safe as possible, and that people we serve are as safe as possible and also have access to opportunities.  In our Being, Belonging, Becoming, Quality of Life training workshops, we use the University of Toronto’s model of quality of life to help frame ways of supporting people to achieve the good life. One of the definitions of quality of life the U of T model offers is,

“Quality of life is the degree to which a person enjoys the important

possibilities of his or her life.”  

Typically people with disabilities don’t have the same privilege as most citizens in having access to important possibilities. Much of the determinants around whether someone attains a good life is if someone has consistent help to explore possibilities that could make their life great. With more government regulations and rules created with the best of intentions, we worry that these will have unintended consequences, end up restricting access to important opportunities, and lead to further isolation of people. The home safety standards a couple of years ago is an example where regulations were intended to make places where people with disabilities live more safe. However, because extensive consultation with community did not occur, the proposed regulations that were introduced created a situation that would have left many people with disabilities homeless. The standards required in the new regulations would have re-institutionalized a person’s home. Many people we serve experienced institutional living and their families and allies advocated for years for the right of people with disabilities to live in a home and community of their choosing. From the beginning Skills Society has been committed to supporting people in their right to a home and community that is far from institutional life. In addition we foresee that the new Occupational Health & Safety (OH&S) regulations coming soon will have unintended negative impact on the quality of support of folks we serve. The OH&S standards will mean that our employees will have to take more time away from supporting people due to requirements of extensive daily safety checks in homes and community settings.  And so, we wonder, are more regulations truly better for folks served and employees? And by whose measure? How will we be able to ensure growth and exploration of important possibilities for the folks we serve, and balance the dignity of risk? These are complex questions with many different sides. What we do know from experience and evidence in the long arc of history, is that strict top down rules tend to limit rights, freedoms and opportunities for individual and collective flourishing.

Guiding Principles that Lead Us

Despite the system landscape picture as described above, we also have a lot of positive things going on at Skills Society that embolden us and make us all proud of our collective work. This is evidenced by the powerful stories of the people we serve that we learn so much from, the inspiring employees leading innovation and engaged citizenship on the front lines, and the work influencing systems change and boosting social innovation for good across Canada. We urge you all to take a look at our website, reflect on the stories from the field and see how you can get involved in our many big and small social innovation initiatives.  

Guiding Principle: Remember our roots AND continue to grow and learn

Skills Society emerged from a family led initiative to help liberate people with disabilities from bleak institutional life. Over 40 years ago, it was very innovative to help figure out ways to support people with developmental disabilities to live and be part of community. Folks we served and continue to serve should never have been locked up, forced sterilized by government order against people’s will, and kept away from their families. Many people we serve faced these atrocities because government and the medical system felt it was best for them and for society. It was done with the best of intentions, by people who were probably not evil. We have to remember that systems can be created to liberate people and systems can oppress even with the best of intentions. We need to remember that grassroots movements made the positive systems change historically in our field, as well as strong advocates with the courage to stand up against systems that were deeply harming people. We feel it is especially important to remember the deep rights based work of our field, as more and more of the people who led that work are leaving. We recognize there are times to stand up and fight oppression and times to extend a hand and collaborate. We need both in the right contexts. As we have matured our understanding of rights based work over the years, we understand not everything should be a fight. To not get stuck in the status quo, we have to balance knowing our roots and being open to new growth, possibilities and true collaboration. We have to remember we have always strived to support the whole person, not get stuck, and adapt as we learn what people, teams, the organization and bigger systems need.

Guiding Principle: Strengthen organizational capacity for a culture of creativity and innovation

Over the years we have been an unusually successful non-profit in regards to walking our talk around innovation. Some of the reasons for this is because of the mindset of leaders in the organization, and mostly because we have been serious about stewarding a vibrant culture of innovation and creativity. Innovation for us is not just a fancy buzzword. Innovation is part of all our work and about being tuned in to the needs of folks, not getting stuck, reflecting deeply on what’s needed, and then adapting and improving services and systems to work better for people. We also recognize that specific innovations all have a shelf life – some of our innovations are on the rise and some are coming to an end, but what keeps going is a fertile ground for fresh possibilities to be supported. We recognize we need to continue to till the soil that continuously yields relevant innovation. People can be trained up in tools of innovation – which is important, but much deeper and sustainable in the long run is to embrace the more complex work of building a culture that acts on thinking differently about challenges and finding innovative pathways forward. In particular some of our secret sauce has been seeking creative collaborations with unusual suspects to shake up our thinking and help us see things we would have missed if we remained in our silos. Looking at Project Citizenship, the Melcor Housing Collaboration, MyCompass Planning, Action Lab, Shift Lab and so many more, you’ll see how deeply we seek out unusual creative collaboration because it yields profound, positive results. In last years report, we highlighted some of the culture pieces we have all worked together on to strengthen a culture of innovation.  Always working on stewarding a culture of creativity and innovation is a deep guiding principle that ultimately means it helps us be better for folks we serve.

Guiding Principle: Beware of oversimplifying complexity

In the beginning of the 2018 annual report Pat Conrad shared a framework from the book Getting to Maybe that we use to help roughly frame whether challenges we are tackling are simple, complicated or complex. This framework isn’t perfect, but does help us sort how and where to focus when tackling challenges. What we notice and are careful of, is that there can be a tendency to want to oversimplify complex challenges. Oversimplifying complexity is an error and more work to correct at best, or negligent and potentially really harmful at worst. An example of this could be like trying to measure how socially included someone with a disability is in their community. You can easily oversimplify by measuring social inclusion in quantitative ways by counting the number of people someone knows in their community. But what happens if someone has developed a really rich friendship with one person who really improves their well-being and sense of belonging? By only counting the numbers, one really strong connection doesn’t look like a great outcome for social inclusion compared to someone who has 20 acquaintances they loosely know in community. The person with acquaintances could still be quite isolated despite the numbers looking really good. How then do we measure social inclusion? Well, it’s complex, and oversimplifying it by counting the number of people someone knows isn’t the answer or the way to check if someone is less isolated. Evaluating complex things like social inclusion needs to involve storytelling, good conversations and reflection with folks served to determine how connected someone is and what could be strengthened. Numbers could still give some insight, but it’s not everything. We evaluate with people we serve through conversations and stories that happen organically in living rooms and homes and through tools like our social innovation MyCompass Planning. Unfortunately, funders struggle with stories as evidence of success, because they are pressured in their systems to show the numbers and validate that procurement of services is resulting in quantitative success of achieving social inclusion, support of rights, personal development etc… We recognize that funders are pressured to oversimplify what’s complex, and unfortunately focus on things that don’t really matter to people served or adequately evaluate what’s working and not working.

To go even deeper, part of the root cause around why we as humans so easily fall into oversimplifying complexity, is that our human brains are not that good at naturally embracing complexity. We have to work at it and go against the grain of some of our deep survival instincts that helped our species survive in the wild in simpler contexts. As humans, our brains mainly evolved to help us sort out threats and flee danger. When our ancestors noticed a rustle in the grass, they survived and passed on their traits by running away whether movement in the grass was simply a breeze or a predator. We survived by assuming anything we don’t understand immediately is a threat and something to discard. So, when we face uncertainty, ambiguity and things we don’t understand right away, our deep automatic tendency is to throw it out, and rigidly adhere to familiar status quo things. Even if those simple things or solutions we offer are wrong. It means we have to consciously cultivate curiosity, recognize when our amygdala (reptilian brain) is firing up and causing us to want to go back to the familiar – a state that too often yields false promises in oversimplifying complexity.

Guiding Principle: Create Space For Stories That Empower

Stories. We focus on listening to stories, creating space for stories to emerge, helping people find their story, using stories to shift perspectives, influence hearts, minds and even use story to shape policy making. Why? Because as indigenous writer and activist Thomas King says, “The truth about stories, is that’s all we are.”  Stories are a deeply human thing. It’s how we make meaning, share knowledge, feel proud of our identities, learn, empathize, connect, plan, dream and better navigate complexity. We also recognize that people with disabilities typically have not had as many opportunities to shape their own stories and as a result have had to live inside other people’s stories and assumptions. Historically the stories of disability have been the de-humanizing labels, case file stories of deficits, and behavioural concerns. We need to learn about people’s needs and how best to support someone to carve a path forward towards the good life, and we need to allow supportive space for people to find their story. With a brief look at our projects on our website you’ll see we have worked to help people we serve to find and tell their stories if they want to. With MyCompass Planning, one of the key challenges we were striving to make progress on, was making it easier for people served, staff, supports and funders to focus on the empowering identities and stories of people served. We’ve used design in MyCompass to shift from seeing deficit stories first, to seeing the whole person, their aspirations, their story. When a person supported, staff, guardian, or funder goes into MyCompass Planning to see a “case file”, they don’t see a traditional case file, they see a human being with a story. This is a powerful way to shift systems to be more humanized, more story-centered. We need to continue to listen to stories, learn from and remember our historical stories, and make new stories together that liberate and empower.

Looking ahead  we are inspired by the stories of the people we serve and our employees and hope that these guiding principles are reflected upon, refined, built upon and adapted as we go into the future together.


“If you always think what you’ve always thought. You’ll always get what you always got”

Gerald Haman

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