All her life, Margaret (not her real name) has challenged expectations. She learned to read when she started school, and by age six could recognise more than 50 words. Two years ago, Margaret left home to live in a Community Living house with two flatmates. Neither of these achievements would have been considered possible when Margaret, who has Down Syndrome, was born in 1970.
When she was born, Margaret’s parents were encouraged to put her in an institution, which they firmly refused to do. As a child, Margaret attended mainstream schools and was partially integrated into the mainstream schooling system. As a young adult Margaret worked at a sheltered workshop run by Lifestyle Trust (later to become Interactionz), where she worked for two to three days each week until the workshop transitioned into a vocational service in the early 2000’s.
The transition from a sheltered workshop into a vocational service signaled a change in the way that Interactionz worked with the people they serve. It marked the beginning of a philosophical shift in the organisation which culminated in person-driven practice, where power and control rests with the person with a disability, and they set the pace and direction of what they want to do.
“Underpinning the whole concept of person-driven practice is the belief that everyone has gifts and strengths to share and that every person has the right to a good life”, explains Independent Facilitator Laurel Stevens.
Margaret’s goal was to travel independently to and from her weekly volunteer role at a local food bank. This involved learning how to catch two buses to get to the food bank, and another two buses to get home. At first, Margaret’s parents were unsure whether this was a good idea. They knew that Margaret was capable of negotiating public transport on her own, but were concerned about factors outside of her control.
“I had my doubts,” explains Margaret’s Mum. “There is always a little bit of worry at the back of my mind about other people on the bus, sometimes it’s not very pleasant.”
Despite this, Margaret was determined to reach her goal of traveling independently. The process was relatively complex.
“Initially we assessed where Margaret was at with what she could do,” explains Interactionz Mentor Carissa Mumby. “We had lots of discussions with mum and dad around her capabilities, and put together a number of strategies in place to ensure safety like an ICE [In Case of Emergency] card and a cell phone.”
Carissa shadowed Margaret on the bus for eight weeks. In this way, Margaret had the security of knowing someone was there, whilst experiencing travel on her own. Margaret continues to use her new skills to travel home from the food bank each week.
“If you can connect people with what they want then that gives them a reason to keep going,” says Laurel. “It gives them a reason to push through the hard stuff and to draw on those resources that they have.”
Learning to travel independently is something Margaret is very proud of. “I’m not ever scared,” she says. It is also something which has significantly changed the way she experiences her life and her role in the community.
“Before, doing an activity or seizing an opportunity to do something was largely dependent on whether or not there was going to be someone available to do that with Margaret and now that doesn’t matter,” says Carissa.
These days, Margaret attends exercise classes, computer classes, swimming, ten pin bowling, a local ‘Knitter Natter’ group and spends time with her friends at the Interactionz Dalmont hub.
Having Margaret live independently from them is not an outcome Margaret’s parents could have anticipated during her early years. “It wasn’t done then” explains Margaret’s dad. “We were told that we may as well put her in an institution because she’d never be any good.”
“It’s taken a load off us” says Margaret’s mum. “Also she’s happy and quite settled.”
For Laurel, the process of implementing person-driven practice is inspiring.
“When we ask the people we serve ‘if you could do anything, what would you want to be doing?’, a number of them, particularly adults that have an intellectual disability, say things like ‘wow – no one has ever asked me anything like that before’, or ‘I didn’t realise I could do this.’ That’s a goose bump moment for me.”