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Reflecting on 2011 International Initiative for Disability Leadership, Exchange and Network Meeting, Sept, San Francisco

September 23, 2011

Meeting some old and new friends at 6:30 a.m. to talk about Michael Kendrick's Optimal Individual Service Design - debriefing our experiences and wondering about the future.

For a number of reasons I think that the 2011 International Initiative for Disability Leadership, Exchange and Network Meeting in San Francisco, might have been one of the most important events of my career.

Although there were some excellent speakers and timely topics, the real gift was the opportunity to network with about 200 leaders from several countries, all of them embarked on similar journeys of exploration in individualized and person-centered services.    A new colleague later said to me, “Thank goodness people say hello, this is an event for friendly out-going people and I’m a little lost.”   I’m not particularly friendly and outgoing but Michael Kendrick told me it was “all about networking – meet as many people as you can.”   So of course, given that I do everything Michael tells me, I did that.   And I met many people I’ve only heard about, or read about, and oddly kept finding myself introducing people to each other who I’ve always imagined as hanging out, exchanging secrets and wearing the same sweaters.   It was a delight.

The International Initiative for Disability Leadership runs concurrently with the International Initiative for Mental Health Leadership, a bi-annual event.    Part of the organization of the event are the exchanges, which are a singular opportunity for those travelling to the conference to go for a few days to one of the host agencies and see their practices.   Because of time constraints, we decided not to do this, but I spoke to many people who had come out of their time with their hosts with all kinds of new ideas.    Earlier this year we spent a week at another agency, interviewing leaders, families, board members and folks supported there and it was an invaluable experience.   If we hadn’t already done that, we’d have probably signed up for an agency to host us as it’s a really good way to learn, not from someone up at a podium talking about what you should do, but from people who are in direct sight actually doing it, and ready to debrief about what they are doing, how and why.

The days were quite long, because the intention was to meet and talk to people, from dawn until late, as well as enjoy a full day of great speakers.   But in the end, there was a sense of exhilaration from being with so many like-minded people dedicated to the same ideals of person-centeredness, and not having to explain yet again why we don’t think congregate care, centre based programs and group home life are the answer to how people with disabilities might be included as members with gifts to share and welcomed as participants in their communities.

There were too many highlights to list, but I particularly enjoyed a fiery and passionate presentation by Linda Rolfe, Director, Division of Developmental Disabilities, Department of Social and Health Services in Washington State about their employment initiative there in which they’ve managed to find and support real work for real pay for 55% of people with intellectual disabilities.   It was an informed, knowledgeable talk about employment in the context of a whole life – our work is often where we make our friends, find ourselves valued, expand our gifts, share our vision of who we are.   To not assume that people might work is to not assume much about their prospects for quality of life.   It was inspiring.

Ms. Rolfe is someone I’d wanted to meet for a long time, so it was another gift to have a few moments to chat with her (when she probably should have been going to catch her plane).   Mary Kealy, who I’ve only met on the phone, was another inspiring and personable speaker and I am now even more looking forward to spending a couple of days with her next month.    Jessica, a lovely young self advocate who recently moved into her own home and is supported by an interesting new organization that only does individualized services, which I think was called Vision into Action, was another excellent speaker and had everyone leaning forward to share her triumphs, nicely supported by Marion, who also gave me one of the best introductions ever.

These conferences have grown in scope and numbers with each event.   The next conference is in two years, in New Zealand, and sounds as if it will be even bigger and would be well worth having a few bake sales to attend.   They do not have a great website, but it is at

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