Frontline Initiative Direct Support Professionals

The Process of Cultural Shifting
Part 2: Find the Person, Place, or Thing

The first part of this article which appeared in Frontline Initiative Vol. 6 No. 2, focused on part one of a two-part theory to help Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) understand cultural shifting. This part of the theory states that some ideas and customs in our culture stop individuals with disabilities from taking part in community life. The second part of the theory states that if we understand those cultural habits, we can use them to help those same individuals join their communities.

While many individuals with disabilities have moved into the community, they have not connected with other community members because of ideas or cultural beliefs that create barriers. DSPs can support people to make connections by using a four-step process that leads a culture to accept a person.

Step One

Step one, as discussed in the last issue of Frontline Initiative, is to fi nd the passion or point of connection. This means the DSP must recognize the talents and passions of the individuals they support and use these to create connections with others. Building on these positive capacities will help people in the community think and act more positively towards individuals with disabilities. 

Step Two

After the change agent has identified the positive capacities for inclusion or incorporation, the next step in cultural shifting is to find a place within the community where we can anchor our bridge. Finding a setting where the person or idea might be accepted sets the stage for inclusion and cultural shifting. In other words, we need to find the person, place, or thing, in the community with which our person can connect.

It is easier to find new friends or ways to participate in community life if you connect with others who share your passion in a hobby, interest, or capacity. For example, my son, Santino asked me if he could try football. Given this interest, I began to look for a venue where Santino might test his interest in the sport and connect with others. I found that venue with a local Youth Football League. Santino and I built a bridge out of his passion and capacity for football and anchored it at the Youth Football League. He used the bridge to connect with the football community, where he has made friends and formed relationships with others who share his passion and capacity for football.

In a more formal way, this step helps agencies connect people to their community. One example is the story of David. David had been admitted to our local county home for the aged as a young man and there he stayed until we met. Through my agency, we helped David move into his own apartment, meet people, and make friends. We used Step One to learn that David enjoyed oldies music, and using Step Two we found an oldies club not far from where he lives. It offered David a good starting point because he had same the interest and knowledge as the other members of the club. David’s DSP helped him use his strengths to build a bridge and anchor it at the oldies club, where he and the other members focus on their passion for oldies music — not on David’s differences.

We know that people gather for all kinds of reasons, but they are at their strongest when they gather to celebrate that which they share. The second step of matching the interest to the community is critical to cultural shifting. To fi nd the right match, we have to ask the right people or look in the right place. In David’s situation, we called the local oldies radio station to inquire. With Santino, I saw a story in our local newspaper about the Youth Football League.

Now let’s talk about an obstacle that may crop up when you and the person you support put the second step of cultural shifting into motion. People with disabilities have historically been forced to congregate separately from typical populations. Even human services professionals tend to continue this separation and call it inclusion. The existing members of your community or chosen venue may try to follow this pattern. They may want to anchor your bridge off to the side. For example, when we discover a capacity during Step One, such as our friend David’s love of oldies, it might be natural to look for other people with disabilities who like oldies and then put them together. We see this all the time in our stadiums or theaters, where the folks with disabilities are herded together to watch the game or show from the “handicap sections.” That is not natural inclusion; it is congregation.

Even when we find a natural community venue, the person who controls the venue might resist the idea of inclusion and suggest congregation instead. For example, my friend Jim used Step One and discovered that he had an interest in swimming. In Step Two we found a YMCA in Jim’s community and went to there to get his membership. The director pulled me aside and whispered that my agency could have private use of the pool every other Tuesday so all the handicapped people could swim together. The director didn’t understand what kind of bridge we wanted to build. He though we wanted to create a community of “disabled swimmers.” We had to help him see Jim as a person who wanted to join the existing community of people who enjoy swimming. When we did that, we started the cultural shift that would let Jim build his bridge where he wanted it to be, not where custom said it should be. 

The Internet is another tool for building bridges. If you spend any time online, you know about chat rooms. These are settings where people gather online to explore common interests. Every topic imaginable has a chat room. For every capacity or passion, there is a place where people gather to celebrate that passion. Once we get over our own habits of segregation, we can help others see that the only requirement for joining the celebration should be common interest. 

Step 3

In my book, I identify the important elements of community and I will review them here. They are —

Rituals – These are customs and traditions that members of the community follow. These behaviors can be formal actions or symbolic activities that members just pick up. Religions have formal rituals and symbols, but so do activities in which we participate for entertainment or other reasons. Anyone who has ever gone to a Bingo game knows that the players whistle or ring a bell when certain numbers come up. Usually, formal rituals are closely followed and passed down from one generation to the next. Informal rituals are often developed by the current group and are specific to that age group, like teenagers giving each other a “high five.”

Patterns — Cultural patterns refer to the movements and social space occupied by the community members and usually revolve around the territory they occupy. For example, in New York’s Little Italy, the Italian culture’s patterns of food, music, language and rituals thrive more strongly than they do elsewhere in New York. As territorial animals, we also defend our “investment” in the culture and may resent those we see as intruders. For example, students from rival high schools may use athletic events to act out their defense of their schools’ territories and cultures.

Jargon — This relates to the words that members of the culture use to talk about their common interest. These words might be technical or very specific to the cultural theme. People who are unfamiliar with legal terminology refer to the language of lawyers as “legalese.” Jargon also refers to sayings or expressions that are not technical but are unique to the culture. If you don’t follow baseball, you may not know what a ground-rule double is. Jargons can also include gestures. There are cultures where to nod your head up and down means “No,” and a side-to-side shake means “Yes.” Imagine the trouble you would have if you were unfamiliar with the jargon of that culture!

Memory — This refers to the culture’s collective history. We record a culture’s actions with yearbooks, annual reports, and other official documents. We may also honor its history with celebrations or holidays. Cultures also preserve memories by weaving them into stories or anecdotes. This living history forms a bond that encourages members to continue the culture. Since we learn from our history, memory also leads to community wisdom.

The value of knowing the four elements of any culture we wish to enter becomes clear as we go on to Step Three. In Step One, individuals identify the activities that they find interesting or exciting. In Step Two, we look for the connection point, a venue or culture where the supported individual can celebrate his or her passion, talent, or interest. In the third step of this process, we try to learn about the culture’s rituals, patterns, jargon, and memories. This gives the newcomer a clearer picture of the culture before attempting to join.

Observing the community in action is the best way to acquire this knowledge. These observations will help the individuals you support to learn the actions they need to take and the information they need to learn to secure their place within the community. The more familiar they are with the community’s rituals, patterns, jargon, and memory, the more easily they will fi t in. Before my son joined the Youth Football League, we learned about its culture by talking to other children and their families who played last year.

There is another reason why this observation period is so important in process of cultural shifting. The members of a community usually react to new ideas that may affect their culture. Very often, that reaction is negative. We need to think about how a new person or idea might change the culture’s rituals, patterns, jargon, or memory. For example, if we introduce a new computer methodology to a group, it will change how the group does its business. A change agent who understands how a new idea will affect a group will be able to plan for helping the group to adjust to the idea. 

When observing cultural elements, the change agent needs to keep an open mind. He or she should make mental notes, and perhaps written notes, if the culture is complex. Agents can also ask people who have had experiences with the culture, but should be cautious. An informant may give slanted or incomplete information if he or she has a personal grudge, a plan that conflicts with yours, or is just suspicious of your questions. A third method for learning the elements of culture is to read local newspapers or promotional material. Successful change agents will try to use all three methods. They ask, observe and read as much as they can about the culture.

Step 4

The final step in cultural shifting centers on the gatekeeper. Gatekeepers are members of the community who have influence with the culture. People and ideas enter a community when a gatekeeper introduces and endorses them. Community members may choose gatekeepers formally, as when they elect a mayor or president of a civic group. They can also give a member this power informally, based on his or her willingness and ability to support the culture. Gatekeeper’s power can be either positive or negative as they apply their influence to endorse or reject a person or idea. We can think of this influence as social capital and the gatekeeper’s approval is an investment in the new idea. A gatekeeper’s investment of social capital for or against an idea can convince neutral members make the same investment. To get an idea of a gatekeeper’s power, consider the fact that in most communities over 50% of the members are usually neutral.

To shift a culture, the change agent must identify and enlist a gatekeeper to facilitate the alteration. This idea is simple, yet complex in how it plays out. On the one side we know that gatekeepers are a part of any culture or community, and that 20% of them are positive people willing to taking risks to promote things they feel good about. We know that when the gatekeeper endorses someone, it encourages other members to do the same. We also know that the more enthusiastic the gatekeeper is, the more apt others are to follow that lead.

On the other hand, enlisting gatekeepers is sensitive business. The change agent needs to remember that most people do not want others to manipulate them or tell them what they should do, especially if the change agent is not a recognized member of the community. Still, if you want to shift a culture’s perspective, a gatekeeper’s support or endorsement is essential. The change agent who can find a gatekeeper and ask for assistance without being perceived as a meddler or trespasser has a valuable talent. 

If the new idea is controversial, gatekeepers will tend to be cautious for fear of rejection. Even assertive gatekeepers will think twice about investing social capital in unusual ideas or major changes because of the increased risk of losing on their investment. When dealing with the inclusion of new people, there are ways to lessen that risk. It’s helpful if the potential gatekeeper has a history of supporting goals that are similar to yours. For example, a gatekeeper who has experience with disability or is sensitive to disability issues may be more likely to help us. Their awareness of the issues gives them a good platform from which to endorse the new person and counter resistance from other members of the community. 

Another point of connection might be if the gatekeeper had a difficult time getting into a group. He or she may be apt to help a newcomer avoid the same problems. Folks who are successful in the culture, even with their difference, tend to be willing to help others who face similar discrimination. Similarly, people who perceive themselves as liberal or tolerant may be more likely to accept differences and sponsor someone attempting to join the culture. Finding and enlisting gatekeepers can be tricky business, but it is an essential ingredient for cultural shifting. Change agents must learn as much as they can about gatekeepers to enhance their effectiveness.

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