Frontline Initiative Teamwork

A Matter of Teamwork


Mike J. Kennedy is a self-advocate who works at the Center on Human Policy at Syracuse University’s School of Education

There is a lot of talk about self-determination in the field of direct support these days. Self-determination is different for each person, depending on who the person is, and what his or her circumstances and experiences are. In my case, I need physical assistance in almost every area, such as getting out of bed, taking a shower, preparing meals, and so on. For me, self-determination is not physical independence. It is more about my knowing what I need and being able to explain this to my personal assistants so that they can best help me.

Self-determination is knowing that there are resources out there that I can use to enhance my growth and independence. I don’t always know how to meet all of my needs and things change. It helps to know that I can find and use other resources. For me, that is true self-determination. It not only helps me grow, but my personal care assistants grow, too. We learn together as a team. It is great when I have assistants who are willing to learn, both from me and the other resources out there.

Because I need my personal care assistants, self-determination for me is a matter of teamwork. I am not trying to become independent of my assistants. I am their employer, but we work together hand in hand and respect each other’s ideas and opinions. If we disagree on something that has to do with my care, my assistants know that I have the final word.

Open communication is a part of any type of team and is very important in the relationship between people and their personal care assistants. It can be difficult to create a sense of teamwork in situations where one of the team members has difficulty communicating. When this happens, it is important that support staff start with the assumption that people can make choices and express preferences, and then to support the development of a communication system before decisions are made. Staff need to be aware that whenever they are assisting someone to make choices it will always be limited by the their beliefs and expectations. It is important that staff are willing to grow learn and modify their beliefs and expectations. I think service providers, family and friends will find that if they listen closely and give honest feedback to people, which can include being clear about what their own limits are, that people will learn better ways of communicating and will work better as a team to solve problems.

Real self-determination happens when there is good communication and when the person has a trusting relationship with someone, or with several people. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Teamwork and equality are the keys to a trusting relationship. There is a big difference between that and just giving an order. As a staff person or a friend or a family member, put yourself in the place of the person with a disability. Instead of overpowering the person you supporting share the responsibility and everyone in the relationship can grow to make things work for both of you. Neither of you has to pretend to have all of the answers.

 For staff people and others who do not have disabilities, as well as for people with disabilities, it is also important to share power. At every part of the day, there are decisions that have to do with power. The question is, who makes the decision? Where does it start and where does it end? The person with the disability needs to have the final say as to what will happen, even if it’s a decision that is jointly made with other people. If a decision is jointly made, the responsibility (including the risk) for the decision needs to be joint, too. The power sharing process doesn’t stay the same all the time. It changes as the people involved grow and learn from each other.

Self-determination is what life is all about. It’s about trust; power sharing, communication and teamwork. It’s about putting the person with the disability at the top, and supporting that person to live a full life.