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TASH: a place at the table

December 1, 2011

Norman Kunc, at the "welcome" dinner, TASH 2011, inspiring a whole room full of people to look where the keys might be found, not just in the places where looking is easiest

Well, it’s a dirty trick Mr. Weather.   I’ve been looking forward to coming to Atlanta for months, not least because it would mean leaving Vancouver weather in later November and coming down to some sun and warmth.   Instead, it’s bitterly cold.  Only a few Canadians, like us, have thought to bring toques but it’s still hard to spend time outside the hotel and the day we arrived here snow was predicted.   I am at TASH 2011, and “No More Excuses” is the theme.   In 25 years of my career in supporting folks with intellectual disabilities this is my sixth TASH conference.   TASH is an international organization of advocates, families, self advocates, educators and service providers interested in the social justice and practice issues around people with disabilities.   There is lots of information at http://www.tash.org   There is lots of talk, both at home and here, about money and funding, so it’s impossible not to be wondering about traveling so far.   We’ve had other tight years, in one of which I ended up attending and paying my own way, just to find myself in a place where I was exposed to the newest, best, most fresh information in our field.    The first day in on this year’s conference, it’s not exception…

For example, today I spent time with Jack Pierpoint and Linda Kahn, publishers and educators from http://www.inclusion.com – a Canadian treasure; with Carole Blessed from Cornell University, the co-editor of the new book Citizenship and Person-Centred Work; I was in small groups with people from Alaska, Maine, Idaho, Maryland, Africa, South America – parents, self advocates and people who provide supports – looking at questions such as “What is your story of fearless leadership?”   Tomorrow and the next day we’ll be choosing from a dozen concurrent sessions with leaders from self advocate groups and universities, parents’ groups and civic projects focused on inclusion, and service providers who have found new ways of focusing their supports.    I connected with some of the other folks from the TASH committee on community inclusion for adults that I serve on.   I spent some time watching a new documentary about the history of the inclusion of people with disabilities as a civil rights movement.   I took an opportunity to meet John O’Brien, a long time hero, and then I hung out a bit with Norman Kunc and Emma Vand der Klift before Norm’s presentation in which he used the metaphor of searching for the key that you need when it’s dark – do you search where the light is, because that’s the easiest place to search, or do you grapple with the shadows to find the key that you really need?

So these are all singular experiences that I cannot have anywhere else.   TASH conferences are where we’ve done some of our best learning as an agency.   We came back from our first one realizing that we didn’t actually need to create another group homes for people (the idea of a group home was itself kind of radical at the time, as people moved out of institutions) we could support them in smaller, more individualised homes.   Instead of merely depending on the infrequent visits of governmental monitors leaving papertrails we could create places where families were welcome, where people could invite their friends from work in, and that those families and friends would have higher expectations of our services and be more concerned with safety and security.   At the time TASH was the only place we were exposed to such ideas.   People could work.   Everyone could work.  People who work feel better about themselves and are more easily included in their communities.   Even people with severe and profound disabilities (who were the people who interested me) could work – it was up to us to support them in more creative, normative ways and make it happen.   This could be or real work!  Not a day program, but a life.   There was a marvellous speaker at TASH who came every year and gave a talk called something like “101 Jobs for People of All Abilities.”  It was literally just a barrage – an abundance of images, picture after picture (on slides I think, pre-powerpoint!) – of people working.  One of them was of a man with this huge smile who, with his only working hand, organized letters for a mail out.   He looked so thrilled and proud.  We came back and got everyone who wanted to work a job.   And they all looked equally proud and thrilled.

Pat Mirenda introduced us to the idea that anyone can communicate.   Lou Brown talked about how “pre means never” and we figured out how to move the folks we supported out of the “pre-employment” programs they’d been in for years, and got them jobs.   One of them went from showing up day after day and sleeping on the “pre-employment” centre sofa to working as a co-handiman in an apartment building.   Robert Perske talked to us about social justice.   We learned about autism, not as a diagnosis of difference, but as a factor in someone’s life that could be supported if we focused first on the normative rather than the difference.   TASH gave us a bigger picture, a bigger sea to swim in, the newest and most innovative minds sharing what was working for them.

For us to support people with disabilities to take their places at the table, we needed to be willing to take our own place at the tables, to share leadership, to participate.   Tomorrow we are part of a panel presenting on how to create documents that work for self advocates, for self advocates.   Tonight at dinner we dined with lovely elegant elders – women who had lived through decades of changes at TASH and for whom it had been the factor that kept them going.   They were kind of breathless and excited about or presentation: “Imagine that!” they said, “actually working with people who will be using the documents to create them!  It shouldn’t be innovative, but it is.”   A friend says that she’s brought her staff down and can we meet for drinks later as they’d like to spend some time with us, as they’ve read our books.    Linda Perry says, in a quote I often think of, that the test of our work is “who is at the table?”  If our dinner tables are not as diverse as our communities, we might want to look at that.   I’m thinking there’s also something in there about which tables one gets invited too.

In a study I’ve been doing of self-advocate literature I’ve been interested to find that 100% of what is a relatively small sample of self advocate leaders talk about the importance of conferences like this.   They say it’s hard to find the money, and they talk about how it is fun to come, and their attendance can be perceived as merely a fun way to travel to new places, but that at such conferences they realize their true goals through a kind of cross-pollination between people from all over talking about possibility and also the “how” of what they need to do to be included.   They also tell stories of wasted years in various kinds of classes and programs where they were unable to learn in the ways that worked for them.

is Studying education in university, one of my favourite theories was from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, about co-learning – Freire says that we must meet those we intend to teach “where they are” and build on what they know, learning ourselves along the way, and that if one has an understanding of teaching in its fullest sense, we can teach (and learn) anything.   It’s a very conscious, very direct move away from the kind of ego-based lecture format that doesn’t work for so many people.   Freire came by this idea out of his own experience of trying to learn in poverty: “I didn’t understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge.”  Hungry, poor and anxious he slipped back four grades in school.   Somehow, he went on to study law, philosophy and languages but before he became a lawyer was “called” to teach as an avocation.   At the time, in Brazil, one needed to be literate to vote so Freire took it upon himself to teach the illiterate lowest classes to read so they could participate.   He helped them form thousands of “culture circles” where they taught each other, after a successful experiment in which he taught 300 sugar cane workers to read in 45 days.  For me, this was the other part of Freire that I loved: he was as interested in practice as in theory.

Or, as Lao Tzu says is the Tao te Ching, “Go to the people.  Live with them, learn from them, love them, start with what they know, build with what they have.”  Our friend Mary Romer has this above her work table, and now I do too.  Mary and her husband Lyle, who run an amazing, person-centred agency in Kent, Washington, will be presenting at this conference and that session is a priority for me to attend because they are people I learn from, with every interaction.

One of the first places that people look when they are trying to reduce budgets is training.   We see this all through our culture – cuts in the schools, cuts to training in hospitals and social services – a kind of pulling in of arms and legs to focus better on the centre of actual services…  it’s a false economy.   It leaves one open to only hearing the stories that those with vested interests want us to hear.   There is, says Michael Kendrick, a bigger, wider world out there – if what you want is to be a big frog in a small pond, by all means do that – but if you really want to know what’s working in some of the best practices go further and wider and farther to look at it.   So we do, and we will return humbled and excited about new things we’ve heard, and also proud of what we’ve accomplished in B.C..

By the way, if you’ve been wondering about purchasing books for small groups for training, which apparently some folks have been looking to do, we have a special on at Spectrum Press in honor of TASH 2011 which we call 15/15/15 – get 15 copies each of our two books on support networks for 15% off.  

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2011 12:36 pm

    It sounds like you are having a wonderful time and getting somne great connections.You too are a great person for others to connect to so it is a mutual exchange, I am sure. Sorry I could not be there sooner but will arrive very late tonight and plan to see you tomorrow.

  2. Roberta Bower permalink
    December 1, 2011 5:21 pm

    Wonderful post, Aaron. Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm. It encourages me here, so far away, to keep looking at who is sharing our table.

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