A Friend Indeed: Living a Full Life with a Network of Support
We all rely on our friends to get us through tough times and to help us celebrate the good, but for many disabled men and women, this network of support isn't always easy to build. But with a little help identifying social connections and helping to maintain them, once isolated individuals can become fuller members of the community.
Gordon Walker now has a network of support, thanks to the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN), established in Vancouver in the early 1990s by Al Etmanski, a former social worker who altered the traditional approach to caregiving by asking the disabled themselves what they want, instead of merely providing services and prescribing rehabilitation options.
Gordon was born with autism, and when his mother died in 1988, his father Chuck knew he had to do something to secure his son's future. Gordon spent most days holed up in his bedroom, seeing no one, and depending on his father for all of his daily necessities. His father worried about Gordon’s future and potential to live and thrive independently.
Today, Gordon lives in his own apartment, paying the bills by working at the local stables. This transformation took only three years, but after being introduced to a robust network of friends.
"PLAN's goal is simple," Etmanski says. "We want everyone to have access to 'the good life'."
The personal network concept works like this: After finding out who and how many people are involved in a disabled person's life, PLAN works with the family to provide a "facilitator," a paid catalyst for building a personal network of new friends chosen from all segments of the community.
Each group member spends individual time with the disabled person in order to grow long-lasting friendships. Beyond this, network members monitor medical care, help manage financial affairs, and communicate with professional care providers and social workers. Other "jobs" are as simple and varied as holding birthday parties, and going shopping.
So far, PLAN has helped more than 5,000 of British Columbia's 530,000 disabled people form such relationships and transition to independence. Establishing PLAN’s influence required persistence and repetition. The organization constantly advocates for disabled individuals by promoting the "personal networks" concept, selling the "disability market" to businesses, and attracting citizen sector organizations.
This visibility has allowed PLAN to share its model with groups across Canada, the United States and Britain. Rather than adding PLAN locations across the globe, the organization seeks to share its experiences with interested groups, providing training seminars and operating manuals to get them up and running in their own communities.
Just as facilitators must be able to see the person behind the disability, non-PLAN groups must buy into the concept that fighting isolation and loneliness – not providing funding or rehabilitation – are the two biggest concerns.
PLAN is always happy to share its experience and wisdom with other groups. It's part of the notion that the whole idea is to get by with a little help from your friends.
Reported by Steve Owad
What do you think?
It's likely that prejudice is the biggest barrier to disabled people finding friendship. Would these crucial connections be more common and easier to make if we worked to eradicate the social stigma of disability?
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