**Companion Resources Newsletter**
edited by Paul D. Leichty
Volume 4, No. 10 October 2002
Greetings to all community builders as we settle into the autumn season! Before we settle into this month’s topic, I would like to update you on some of the changes in the products offered by Companion Resources.
Last month, I shared some thoughts about the ways in which persons with special needs are shunted off by society into a kind of exile. That exile takes on different forms than it did several generations ago when the large institutions prevailed. However, despite community living arrangements and semi-independent living, the circumstances of isolation and loneliness still often exist.
As I indicated, once little communities of exile are created, it is not easy to re-incorporate the persons in them into the larger community. Marginal people don’t just automatically come back into the center of community life.
That’s why I indicated that it takes a “bridge.” It takes a person, a program, a commonality of some kind to reach out to those who are marginalized. It means that someone at the center of community life must say, “I will find a way to reach out to someone else and help them find ways to relate to the larger community.”
However, a colleague reminded me recently that even this approach has its limitations. It assumes that the “mainstream” of the community is always the norm. Yet, expressions of community life can happen on the margins as well. It reminds us that those of us in the mainstream don’t often cause that stream to flow in the direction of those who are “different.” Rather, those who are different are expected to adapt to us, to fit into something that resembles “normal.”
So bridges can happen in many ways. They can be built from either end–from the mainstream reaching out or by conscious participation at the margins. The latter is particularly true when we think of families who are affected by even one member with significant special needs. Those of us with the ability to do so need to enter that family’s world to really understand and build the bridges back to the larger community.
As I have met over the past month with a group of parents, we have developed four “A” words that signify the main concepts behind the bridges that will build up and nurture community to include persons with disabilities:
Awareness involves understanding the needs and challenges that a person or a family faces. There are different levels of understanding, some of which can happen through educating others on the psychological, medical, emotional, and spiritual issues related to a particular condition.
Yet the greatest awareness happens as we share the burdens. Taking a shift interacting with a hyperactive child not only gives overburdened parents a much needed break, but it allows others in the community to actually experience some of the challenges that family faces. Gaining this kind of awareness gives the community more creative bridges so those in exile can participate in the life of the community.
Even if they want to be included in community life, persons with developmental disabilities often cannot communicate their own needs effectively. Family members feel embarrassed about constantly asking for special considerations. It is a tremendous relief when someone else comes to a family member and says, “How can we shape this community activity to include your whole family?”
Yet, because of the difficulties and inconveniences often involved, the community will not often do this with commitment and resolve unless there are at least a few persons who keep advocating for consciously including everyone. Advocates can play an important bridging role in building inclusive community life.
Sometimes there is no greater frustration than vague promises. “We’ll help you out” or “We’ll find something for him to do” can reveal good intentions without the follow-up. While some people have a gift for identifying needs and simply being at the right place at the right time, most of us need some organization to be accountable.
That’s why churches, agencies, and community groups are creating circles of friendship and support around a person or family with special needs. Accountability can even extend as far as planning for a lifetime of care for the person with special needs, even after parents are gone.
However, most often accountability involves clarity in the simple week-to-week tasks such as who takes a person to church or to get a haircut. Accountability also may involve identifying and developing gifts in the individual served, being a special friend that helps that person feel included.
Once gifts are identified and used, the bridge of acceptance is the most powerful gift we can give someone coming in from exile. The way that we respond to a smile or a hug, the way that we talk directly to a person, or even how we respond to the noises of sheer excitement, will communicate volumes to a person with disabilities.
Of course, nothing replaces intentional relationships of companionship. This is especially important as that “lovable child” grows into an awkward teenager and then an adult who still sometimes acts like a child. True companionship communicates acceptance, a key bridge that builds community.
Keeping in mind the bridge concepts of advocacy, accountability, awareness, and acceptance, we can creatively build the specific bridges that bring worlds together. Building community means building bridges from both ends as we help people embrace each other for the unique persons that we all are.
Until next time, may joy and peace be yours,
Paul D. Leichty
“People using Technology building Community”