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Photographs: One Recipe for Connection

May 1, 2010
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Three years ago my colleague Susan Stanfield and I were part of a project in which we looked at networks of support around folks with disabilities. We looked at folks who were living in isolation, who seemed to have no friends or family, and we looked at folks with great networks of support that anyone would envy.By the end of the project we felt so passionately about what we’d discovered – that it is possible for folks of all kinds of abilities and challenges to have friends, that it’s not rocket science to help them and that this is a conversation that enriches us all – that we developed a workshop based on what we’d learned. CLBC hired us to meet with people all around the province and provide the workshop and self-advocates and families and staff would come up afterwards and tell us what worked well for them. We started making a list of what was working for people and the list got longer and then turned into a book

One of our conclusions has been that folks with disabilities are really in the forefront of questions about loneliness and isolation that are cropping up in big cities, rural areas, with seniors and with immigrants. Another conclusion is that people with disabilities and their families can be leaders in this conversation: community living, as a movement, has fifty years of experience in supporting folks to become part of their neighbourhoods. At this point in our evolution, the problem might not be that we need to find out how to be part of a neighbourhood as we might have to create the neighbourhoods we want to be part of.

In terms of a recipe for success, the thing that seems to be important is that people know that folks with disabilities are open to relationships. CLBC has developed a campaign called “Start with Hi!” which has been really successful and this is also the way we start our workshops – by getting people to introduce themselves to folks they don’t know.

Talking about personal support networks is really the beginning of a conversation about asking and communicating. One of the things that we did in our project and which we’ve seen folks do around the province various ways is take and share their photos. We gave people disposable cameras and they went to places where they’d known people for a long time – waitresses, hair-dressers, bus drivers – and asked if they could take their picture. Those people were so moved that the person actually wanted a photograph of them, that it opened up the possibility of a new conversation.

The request communicated that they were important, and that led to invitations, exchanges of names and phone numbers and information that allowed a story to grow that hadn’t been voiced until that moment. They’d already established a relationship; they just hadn’t known how to talk about it or deepen it. The cashier at McDonalds said to one of the folks who was profoundly autistic and non-verbal, “I look forward to your visit every week – I make sure I take this shift so that I’ll be here when you come in!” She hadn’t ever asked his name or anything about his life, but once they’d exchanged names (with the help of a facilitator) they were off. This happened again and again.

We’ve also met people who use digital cameras to record what they are doing and who they are spending time with, so they can scroll through those images when they meet the next person, and people who make small (and large) photo albums of friends they want to talk about to possible new friends. Photographs end up in wallets, address books, on cell phones, in Facebook albums, on mantles and on the walls and all of them are constant affirmations of belonging.

We continue to facilitate workshops around the province. With each one we learn something new and both Susan and I have felt so privileged to be able to have so many conversations in so many places.

A printable pdf of this article is available here; feel free to use and distribute it. 

 

 

 

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