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Researching Reseachers: Sheenagh interviews Emma Van der Klift

January 31, 2013

emma-van-der-klift1) Emma, in “The Powell River Conversations” from the Spectrum Press anthology From Institutions to Individuals you talked about your role as a conflict negotiator. Is there anything we can learn from this that would be helpful in the support of people with developmental disabilities?

Thanks, Sheenagh. It’s a really good question. I actually do think there are things we can learn from conflict negotiators, especially when it comes to providing good support for people who have puzzling or difficult behaviour. I had a chance to interview a number of hostage negotiators a few years ago. Hostage negotiators deal with some of the most difficult situations you can imagine. I watch TV, so before I met these people, I thought hostage negotiators used weapons, bullet-proof vests and the SWAT team to solve problems. But what I learned is that they actually rarely ever do that. Instead, they use words and empathy to help people calm down.
They taught me a lot about how important curiousity is. We tend to make judgments about people when they’re having a hard time, and those judgments get in the way of constructive help. Negotiators told me that if they stop being genuinely curious and get judgmental in their work, people die! So they never do it. They don’t give advice, they don’t lecture, they don’t argue, they don’t tell people what to do – they listen, they stay curious and empathetic, and they work hard to form bonds. I was pretty impressed to learn that they are able to successfully resolve 90% of the situations they get called to deal with. So yes, I think there is a lot to learn from negotiators that might help us provide better support to people with disabilities. Stay curious, listen, and work hard to form bonds that matter – not only when people are struggling, but all the time!

2) What is Narrative Therapy, and what role does it play in your work in human services, specifically with people with disabilities?

Wow! That’s a big question, and hard to answer in a few words. To quote Alice Morgan, because I think she says it best, “narrative therapy seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counseling and community work, which centres people as the experts in their own lives. It views problems as separate from people, and assumes that people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives”.

When those of us who don’t have disabilities truly see the people we support as being the experts on their own lives, as competent and able, we are in a position to offer much more meaningful and respectful support. I think it’s about walking with people, not trying to lead or fix them.

3) Do you think that it is important for people with disabilities be involved in research that relates to them?

I absolutely do! For way too long professionals have been in charge of defining who people with disabilities are, what they should do, what kind of supports are needed, and how services should be delivered. This is especially true of research around behavioural support.
There’s some very interesting research showing up around the world right now, where people with and without disabilities are doing co-research. In many cases, this research is actually led and interpreted by people with disabilities, who then go on to present their research. This is such a promising and refreshing change! I can’t wait to see more of it. And of course we hope that with the research results come real transformations in practice!

4) You have supported many people with disabilities to have better lives. What do you think is one of the most important things for us to be working towards today?

I think that those who have disabilities are always the best judge of that! However, in my humble opinion, communication is probably the most important issue. When people have a voice, they are not only safer and happier, they have influence!  Too many times those of us who don’t have disabilities speak on behalf of those who do, and unfortunately, we don’t always get it right. Even families! We need to work together to find ways to make that imbalance right and to really listen to people. Communication is the ultimate civil rights issue.

5) Can you tell us about someone with a disability who has been important to you?

Well, probably my husband Norm is the first person who comes to mind! We’ve been together for more than twenty years, and I can’t even tell you how much I’ve learned during that time. Of  course, I hope you won’t tell him I said that, or I’ll never hear the end of it ☺.
But seriously, I believe that most of what I’ve learned that’s worth knowing has been from my friends with disabilities. I’ve been lucky to have so many great role models! One person who stands out as an example is my friend the late Laura Hershey. Laura was a wonderful woman who also happened to have really significant disabilities. She needed help to do almost everything in her life, but that didn’t stop her from being a powerful advocate and activist. She was one of the people who helped bring the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) into legislation in the USA in the 1980s. Laura was also a poet, and she once wrote a piece that really influenced me called “You Get Proud by Practicing”. In this poem, she talked about how all of us have to argue with the messages we get in our society about not being good enough, smart enough, attractive enough. She said we can get proud of who we are by practicing. You can see her poem here.

6) Is there anything else you would like to say?

Just thank you for asking me to take part in this column! And keep up the great work. Norm and I really enjoy your interviews.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 31, 2013 7:10 am

    Great interview, Sheenagh. I really enjoy your columns. And thank you Emma for sharing your friend Laura’s poem.

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