Frontline Initiative Supporting Families

The Process of Cultural Shifting
Building Bridges to Community, Part 1

This article is based on a two-part theory, this is part one. The fi rst part is that some ideas and customs in our culture stop individuals with disabilities from taking part in community life. The second part is that if we understand those cultural habits, we can use them to help those same individuals join their communities. This type of change is called “cultural shifting.” As a Direct Support Professional (DSP), you are the agent of that change and the vital link between the people you serve and the communities they wish to join.

We use the term “cultural shifting” in this article to describe how someone becomes part of a community. In other words, when a new person, product, or idea is accepted in the community, a cultural shift has occurred. The process of cultural shifting is described more fully in my book, Cultural Shifting (2001) from which this article was taken.

The idea of a bridge

The process of cultural shifting is best understood when we compare it to building a bridge. It’s easy to see why we build bridges. We want to get from here to there. Figuring out how to build one can be much harder. The challenge of connecting people to community is the same. It’s easy to describe what we want to do: we want to find ways for people who are “over there” (disconnected from their communities) to cross the “river” and come here (united with their communities.) The hard part is in making this happen when the “river” between the person and the community is really the community’s way of looking at the individual who wishes to cross over.

This example gets easier to understand as we look at the ideas that have kept people with developmental disabilities outside the community. In my book, Interdependence: the Route to Community (1991, 1995) and Beyond Difference (1996), I commented on the traditional medical view that focuses on deficiency and dysfunction. The medical model says that the best way to get people with disabilities from one side of the river to the other is to try to change whatever is different about them so the community will accept them. The approach is popular, but it is not effective. We have moved people into the community but not really helped them become part of the community. Instead, the medical emphasis on differences spreads to the community, whose members come to devalue individuals based on their disabilities. In fact, many people see only the disability and have a very hard time seeing the person at all.

To consider persons with disabilities as the problem and “place” them in communities without exploring the cultures of those communities is like riding a train on a circular track. The train seems to be moving, but doesn’t actually go anywhere new. This is not how culture shifts. If instead, we work to change the community’s perceptions, instead each change would benefi t all individuals who wish to cross the river.

This is why the idea of building bridges is so important. First, take a moment to think about how we just changed our own thinking. We now know that the river (which represents differences) is no longer the most important factor. Instead, we need to concentrate on gathering strong materials to build the bridge and finding a fi rm place on each side of the river where we can attach it. Now it is time to start thinking about what type of bridge we need to build and what materials we would need to build it. To do this, the change agent (the DSP) needs to think about four critical steps.

Four steps to cultural shifting

A four-step process leads a culture to accept a person, product or idea. Unfortunately, the human service system seldom follows those steps when seeking inclusion for people with disabilities, but I believe that they will work. If you think back, you may have seen these steps in action. Companies use them to sell products, candidates follow them to be elected, and school boards promote policy changes with them. As we explore these steps, ask yourself if you have already used them with the people you support and how you might do so in the future.

Step one – Find the passion or point of connection

The bridges we build to carry cars or trucks get their strength from steel and concrete. The bridge that we are building will get its strength from people — from their ideas, passions, and abilities. It is a “capacity process.” In other words, we must identify all that is strong or good about the citizens with disabilities who will use the bridge.

This means we look for the following elements in them:

  • Passions
  • Capacities
  • Interests
  • Hopes
  • Dreams
  • Skills
  • Talents
  • Hobbies
  • Strengths

When we find any of these things in someone, they grow stronger. When we notice that someone is good at something or knows a lot about something, that person feels more pride and confidence in himself or herself. People like to talk about what they enjoy and this leads to empowerment. Empowerment is a feeling we get when we are connected and respected. Individuals can use their talents and interests to build bridges to the community and their feelings of empowerment will give those bridges strength.

Compare this with what happens when we focus on someone’s problems or deficiencies instead. When that happens, the person tends to feel dis-empowerd. We never feel good about the things we cannot do or do not do well, but our system sets us up to look for those things in people with disabilities. We work hard to find people’s differences and disabilities and develop individualized program plans (IPP) aimed at “fixing” those problems. We put far less effort into encouraging individuals to use their skills or interests to increase their independence.

This deficiency model causes people to think negatively and critically about themselves. This point of view can be very frustrating if the problem cannot really be fixed. In many ways, this model leads people away from empowerment. In fact, to focus on our problems is to invite negativity and poor self-image into our minds. Imagine where a bridge of negative ideas, poor self-image, and frustration would take you!

The capacity process suggests the exact opposite. By looking for those things that are positive and strength-oriented, we can help people build on the capacities they already have and promote their importance to the community. Some people know their passions and interests. All we have to do is ask. With other folks, we have to dig. In the work we do, we may meet folks who have been so sheltered or who are so inexperienced that they do not readily display their passions. When people have been devalued and cannot seem to find their passions at all we must give them the time and space they need to identify those points of connection. People who want to discover themselves find it helpful to have input from those who know them best. Families or other relations have been invaluable for the capacity-building work we do.

Often this is a discovery process. This became clear to me when my wife and I spent a Saturday cleaning out our garage. As we found and removed old bikes, cameras, hockey sticks, baseball bats, a ballerina tutu, an old trumpet, and other items, I realized that all of these items were potential interests we were looking for in our children. We used the ones that appealed to our children to create bridges to community inclusion for them. Others became reminders of our search for materials to build those bridges.

Part two will be continued in the next issue of Frontline Initiative.

This article is based on the monograph Building Bridges to Community, the Process of Cultural Shifting Shifting written by Dr. Al Condeluci, written by Dr.Al Condeluci, Executive Director, UCP Pittsburgh. With his permission, it has been edited for Frontline Initiative by Melissa Rennie, Associate Director of Residential Programs, Sullivan Arc.