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Extraordinarily Ordinary

Nick Maisey is an Occupational Therapist, social entrepreneur and community builder from Perth, Western Australia. Nick has been awarded a Social Change Fellowship to undertake an international information exchange, designed to enhance his knowledge of innovative, effective approaches to fostering the development of relationships and community connections.
‘In the Village’ is a series of reflections and perspectives sparked by Nicks experiences.

A principled approach to a real home, a real job, real relationships...

An ‘ordinary’ good life isn’t something that just happens for everyone. Many individuals in our communities face significant challenges to being valued and included. It’s insufficient to believe that exclusion is the fault of the individual: Exclusion is relational, it concerns the way in which we relate to each other, which necessitates looking not just at the individual, but at the broader social environment and social barriers that devalue people, and perpetuate exclusion and marginalization.

A helpful framework

Social Role Valorization (SRV) is one such framework that can offer us great insights and understanding into the process of how and why some groups of people are devalued by society.

In essence, the international definition of SRV assumes that humans value (or devalue) each other, and that we do this subconsciously, based on the role we perceive others to be in. If we ‘see’ someone as the worker, the parent, the sister, the volunteer, the student, the artist, the musician, the sports player, the club member, the barista, the friend – If we ‘see’ someone holding one of these valued roles, we make a positive valuation on that individual. Positive valuations by those around us create the possibility for the ‘good things in life’ – dignity, acceptance, respect, belonging, access to education and development opportunities, a normal place to live, opportunities to work and participate.

In any society, there are groups who are devalued, typically due to some aspect of difference eg. physical or intellectual capability. By default, individuals who have this aspect of identity are likely to be ‘seen’ in devalued social roles, such as ‘disabled person,’ ‘burden on society,’ ‘eternal child,’ ‘object of charity,’ roles in which they are perceived to be devoid of making any valued contributions, and rely on the contributions of others. Devalued individuals are far less likely to experience ‘the good things in life’ (listed above), and at far greater risk of experiencing exclusion, rejection, segregation, and even abuse, violence, brutalization and even death.

SRV around the kitchen table

One such example of this ‘SRV around the kitchen table approach is’ Janet Klees, who has spent much of her working career with individuals and families connected to the Deohaeko Support Network, and is now the Executive Director of Durham Association for Family Resources and Supports (DAFRS). I’ve known of Janet and her work for some time, having had great admiration for her firm, principled grounding in Social Role Valorization, and her strong ability to convert theory into practice.


The DAFRS approach

I had the privilege and the pleasure of spending three days with Janet and the team from DAFRS to learn more about how they use the ideas of SRV to enable people with an intellectual disability to be included and connected in the community. Janet describes their organisation’s work as supporting individualized ‘typical’ lives in the community that are directed and managed by families.

his may involve gaining an understanding of a person’s unique abilities, gifts, skills and strengths, and supporting the person to take on social roles (eg. Through employment, club membership, volunteering, neighbourhood and community relationships) through which they have the opportunity to make valued contributions to others. Being seen as ‘the worker,’ or ‘the volunteer,’ or ‘the neighbour,’ or ‘the artist,’ results in a positive valuation by other members of the society, significantly altering the dynamic of the relationship, and putting the person on a level playing field when it comes to forming genuine friendships and relationships.

Critiquing common disability sector practices with an SRV lens

For those of you who work in the disability sector (and even for many of you who don’t) this all might sound completely logical, and what we think a lot of services are doing every day. But, are they?

For a multitude of reasons (some of which include historical practices, historical devaluation, funding structures, and decisions made in the interests of organisational efficiency), the practice of grouping people with a disability together in homes, programs and workplaces, is still largely commonplace. Perpetuating this practice is in direct opposition to the ideas of SRV.

SRV posits that the act of grouping together people who are devalued by society, has a significant impact on how people are seen and interpreted, resulting in greater devaluation. Applying this to the experience of people with a disability, when people are congregated together in segregated group homes, day programs, social groups or workplaces that are exclusively for people with disabilities, SRV explains that other members of the society are far less likely to ‘see’ each individual for their unique, positive identity – We see a group of people with disabilities, and the history of devaluation, segregation and exclusion is perpetuated.

In an alternative scenario, if each of those individuals was individually supported to develop and grow a unique personal identity, holding their own regular job through which they contributed through their unique skills and abilities, participating in a diverse community-based social group aligned with their interests (and not their disability), etc etc…then the individual is far more likely to be valued positively in the eyes of other members of the society, to be respected, to have good relationships, self worth, a sense of belonging, and true citizenship.

The DAFRS team’s grounding in SRV provides a lens through which they can analyse and critique practices in this way. And what I found particularly admirable was their courage to adhere to this principled approach unfailing, and engage in challenging conversations with individuals, families, organisations, funders, and each other, to raise consciousness about the social devaluation (and its consequences) that is a direct consequence of grouping.

“SRV gives us both an ability to analyse what we see, as well as an ability to live it out. It changes the lens through which we look at the world…Devaluation is putting people at risk of losing their life…SRV is a social justice movement, changing communities.”

Families supporting families to plan for a real life

One of the ways in which DAFRS brings this process to life for families is through a Family Learning Series, through which two experienced family members and a DAFRS Coordinator co-facilitate a series of workshops, to support families to plan for ‘a real life.’

Staying true to their SRV-roots, the DAFRS team set clear expectations with families before the series about the type of mindset that will be embraced, and the types of ‘options’ that will not be discussed. They are clear that the focus will not be on comparing and discussing different service-based options, but instead, on planning for a real life.

The strong SRV-grounding gives the DAFRS staff and the families, the principles and the confidence to analyse and challenge segregated models through these conversations.

The proof is in the pudding

During my time with DAFRS, I was welcomed into the homes of many individuals who were only too happy to share with me what a good life really meant for them. People like Laura, who lives in her own apartment and comes to life through her involvement as a choir member with a local community choir (yes, I was lucky enough to hear the latest song that Laura is working on too!)

And Brent, who has just recently moved into his own apartment, a self-contained converted wing of the family home. I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with Brent between his busy schedule of horse-riding, gym, swimming, doing the weekly grocery shop trips to help his grandma and cousins, and making and delivering amazingly intricate, creative gifts for his neighbours for festive celebrations in the neighbourhood. He’s currently exploring job options at the local thrift store, and at the stables where he rides. Brent’s life has changed in big ways over the past couple of years, through putting into practice the principles of SRV – How can he be a valued family member? A valued neighbour? A valued member of his community?

When Brent’s mother Dawn told me with teary eyes about the pride she felt when she learned how Bradley had gained such a positive reputation at his grandmother’s residential care facility, where he visits like clockwork to deliver her groceries and spend time with her, the true meaning and value of becoming a valued family member was unmistakable.

And then there were the lovely Karens. No, that’s not a typo – Karen and her good friend of the same name, Karen. The Karens (affectionately known as Big Karen and Little Karen to their friends, due to their height difference) shared with me the story of their friendship, and how it has developed, evolved and deepened over the many years they’ve been in each other’s lives.

They originally met back in the schoolyard, when Big Karen started helping Little Karen with her schoolwork, and have grown together through school camp experiences, quality times connecting over their shared interests of food, cooking and shopping, through family gatherings, and more recently, when Little Karen accepted the honour of being a bridesmaid at Big Karen’s wedding. Nowadays, their relationship consists of endless hours together doting over Big Karen’s new baby. Big Karen explained that although their relationship may have started with her feeling like she was the one helping Karen, that over time, she developed such a fond appreciation for Little Karen’s positive qualities – her positive attitude in the face of the most challenging experiences, her sense of resilience, her generosity and her love for life – And their relationship has truly become one of equality.

3 simple insights to light the way forward

If this has all sounded a little complicated, perhaps the most useful way of digesting it is embedded within these three simple yet powerful insights that Brent’s mother Dawn generously shared with me. For Dawn, her involvement in supporting all decisions related to Brent’s life is now shaped around these three points:

1. Is it typical? Is this typical for a 26-year old man? Is this the type of home that a typical 26yr old man would live in? Is this the typical type of way a 26-year old man would live his social life? Is this the typical type of way a 26-year old man would contribute to his family, to his community?

2. What will it look like after I’m gone? What will Brent’s life look like when I’m not here? Will he be a valued member of his family, of his community, a valued friend, with people who will be there for him, people who love him, who will advocate for him, and will truly support decisions in his best interests? Or will he be at the mercy of services, where those decisions are made by others? That might be many years from now, but what sort of a life are we building towards over a lifetime?

3. We are all interdependent. Nobody is independent. We all need help, and we can all give help. I stopped thinking about “all the help that Brent needs,” and started thinking, “how can he be helpful? Who can he help?” His valued roles as a son, a grandson, a brother, a cousin, a neighbour, have flowed from there.

– Nick Maisey, in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.

This is a condensed version of this blogpost; to read the full version with the author’s ‘Final Take-Home Learnings’ go HERE. 

earn more about Nick and his inspiring ‘In the Village Project’ click HERE.

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