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Why We Fail

posted on June 10, 2015

When I first began working in the disability services sector in Edmonton, I did so because I believed that I would be making a difference. Working on the frontlines, getting to know individuals with disabilities and their needs, I knew that I would truly be helping people in my community.

Every day in Alberta, disability support workers leave their homes to provide meaningful services in this sector, and several aspects of these services can be measured. For example, how many meals were prepared, how often was medication administered, how many individuals took part in inclusive activities. The list is long. In reality, the problem with disability services is that the list of tasks and projects is far too long.

The jack of all trades is the master of none. No one resents that expression more than the caring people, motivated by their own ideals, who are coerced into promising to do more than is actually possible. No matter what job title you hold in disability services, the actual work is a continuous parade of hat-changing. Apart from the professionals to whom Albertans with disabilities have access, there are few of us that have specialized job descriptions.

Funding is cherished, and when enough of it is received by a disability services organization, a new job can be created to deal with program or administrative burdens. Initially, this job’s description is neatly classified, and the new employee sets out with confidence to tackle the list of unmet needs or unfinished work in the organization, always with the overarching goal of making the region a better place for individuals with disabilities to live. Unfortunately, as with all employees hired before them, the new team member will quickly have more tasks than time. Inevitably, the never-ending cycle of mounting responsibilities begins with a small, innocent phrase: “Well, couldn’t you just…?” I mean, it seems logical enough. We already work with the individual. Couldn’t we just add in a couple more things to work on? Truthfully, the answer is ‘no’.

There has been a lot of noise about worker turnover in our field. Wages have been made out to be the primary culprit. While it is true that the people doing great work with Albertans with disabilities should be better compensated, nobody starts working in this field with compensation as their primary goal. Organizational resources are being stretched thin, and when we analyze the employee retention statistics, we can see that the system is broken. Focus, specialization and alignment are the keys to success in our field. We need to learn to sidestep “Well, couldn’t you just…?” and refocus the conversation on actual outcomes.

One has only to look at the statistics to see that we are, in fact, failing. Employment and poverty rates of people with developmental disabilities are abysmal. Social inclusion and education programs for Albertans with disabilities, at least, warrant an overhaul.

But, before pointing the finger of blame to external factors, I would submit that there is room for an inward examination of our practices. We lament the fact that people in our sector are not considered professionals. What we forget to take into account, however, is how professionals are expected to behave. A lawyer would not accept your request to file your taxes. A journeyman electrician would not agree to renovate the plumbing in your home.

So, why should a skilled practitioner in disability services succumb to the endless requests to provide services that are outside the scope of a program’s original and intended design? A professional knows when additional, unreasonable demands must be declined in order to allow their expertise to shine through in their work, thereby fulfilling the needs of their clients to the best of their ability.

I’m not suggesting that we, in the disability services sector, should launch a protest. I am certainly not suggesting that people working in these organizations should refuse to perform their job duties or their assigned tasks. What I am suggesting is that, as a sector, we must selectively concentrate on the requests for additional work that will result in the outcomes that will truly help Albertans with disabilities realize their beginnings of inclusion. With a narrowed, deliberate focus, the great people working in the disability services sector will be better enabled to accomplish what they set out to do every day, and that is, to provide individuals with disabilities the support they need to live the lives they choose.

- Tilton Reed, CEO