By Hilary Felix
One of our main focuses here at the Santa Fe Ranch is to make a difference in the lives of persons with developmental disabilities. We are using a model based on national best practices, combining it with our own individualized elements, and bringing it to the community we love. It’s a recipe we are proud of and we are already seeing huge gains. In my last blog post I shared how the ranch came to be a uniquely wonderful place to create opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities. This time I’d like to share a bit about what approach we take to our work and the philosophy of why we do things the way we do.
The first guiding philosophy in our work with the special needs population is that we build trust. This may seem like a no-brainer but it’s incredibly easy to skip ahead to complex strategies and thinking and forget what it all requires. Many of you already know how foundational trust is to new learning for anyone. It is what gives us the confidence to take a risk and know we’ll still be okay.
Now imagine the mind-set of a person with special needs or maybe you already know and love someone personally. What have their experiences been like? What is their understanding of the world?
Imagine for example that you are vision impaired or pre-linguistic. Someone takes your hand and directs you to do something or go somewhere. Or perhaps they want you to touch something, so you can learn more about it. They pick up your hand and their intention is good enough, but lacking the full understanding of what this experience will be like, you probably resort first to one question. Do I trust? This includes “will they trust me”? For example will they hear me if I say “no” or “wait” in whatever form I can communicate or if I ask for more time/information/anything? Will they listen?
A few years ago I attended a training through the Arizona Deaf Blind Project at the School for the Deaf and Blind in Tucson. It was the most influential and helpful education I’ve yet received. During one memorable session, teachers were broken into pairs for some sensitivity training. I was blindfolded, and unbeknownst to me my partner was given the written direction to feed me something on a spoon “forcefully”. In this case, this meant no orienting me to the activity first (such as, letting me touch the spoon to show me I was going to be asked to eat something) and no waiting for my consent. I had no idea because I had no way to know, I was blindfolded.
Needless to say, a moment later the spoon was flying through the air and I was the one who had wildly knocked it away from my assailant/teacher/partner. I reacted this way as soon as I sensed something unknown was approaching. It did not matter that the food on the spoon was something tasty and sweet and it didn’t even matter that until that point I trusted this person (my colleague!). The message was clear. We who are giving guidance to those with special needs have a lot of information we are calling on at any given moment that in all likelihood is different than theirs.
To build trust, we must always remember to “Do with, not for”. Often hesitance on the client’s part is a request for more information. I trust them to know what they need. By giving information patiently the person has time to build trust that doesn’t come with a sudden onset experience. He or she gets empowered and has time to comment along the way – to guide us too. The anxiety is reduced. It’s the difference between putting someone in a car for the first time and orienting them to the steering wheel, gas pedal and breaks vs. doing none of that but yelling “Now DRIVE!”
And I try to remember just because I personally believe the experience I’m about to offer is valuable, does not mean the person I’m working with is feeling the same way. There’s no one time fix either. It’s a constant and beautiful dance that is always shifting as we move along.