This talk was given as part of a workshop on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) for helping organizations-hosted by the United Way of Lanark County, Ontario on April 24, 2014.
Welcoming is “the initial and ongoing interactions with people and environment that result in a feeling of belonging and a willingness to engage.” ~ Bruce Anderson1
As Sherri Torjman ,of the Caledon Institute, points out in a blog post, “Disabling the Disability Mindset”, there is major shift in how “disability” is viewed and treated as a matter of public policy.2 She notes that:
- attitudes and lack of consideration in procedures and design end up keeping a lot of people with disabilities “on the outside”;
- with the passage of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in 2005 and its regulations now coming into effect, we have obligations to remove and mitigate barriers to inclusion; and
- we also have opportunities to “be a powerful emissary for change” in our communities.
So where does this fit on the radar of helping organizations? I’d suggest that there are a couple of really important things relating to how we think that can transform AODA compliance in great opportunities for building more welcoming, healthier communities.
First, the AODA is intended to get all of us to think about, and to act to remove barriers to inclusion. It’s basically a pretty low bar (standard) when you think about it. Most human service organizations say some place in their literature, that part of their job is helping people who are marginalized (for whatever reason) to be part of the community. The United Way asks the community for funds to help us do this kind of work. It seems to me that in order to be credible with the public, we should do a good bit more than just comply with the AODA because we have to! Shouldn’t our common mission be to help all communities be inclusive and welcoming by design and as the norm?
Secondly, I think all of our organizations need all the help we can get in sustaining strong cultures and effective ways of contributing to our communities. We can do better and we should take some chances; however great our services and programs are, they are means to help create healthy, inclusive communities. Positive change for both individuals and communities are the ends we are seeking. Sometimes we are dazzled by our programmes BUT, to paraphrase the great community organizer, Saul Alinsky, it is vital to our survival that we can distinguish between means and end. If we can’t we may end up on our “ends” with much in the way of “means”.3
Bruce Anderson says that for professional helping organizations, focusing on welcoming is a wise strategy.4 He offers four reasons why welcoming is critical to our learning and thus to the impact we have:
- People we work with often feel isolated, vulnerable and “unworthy”. They may want a service to help them in certain ways but, as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs points out, we each want and need to experience belonging, inclusion and to be valued. Loneliness is the greatest disability!
- Creating welcoming spaces and engaging in welcoming behaviour helps to build the social capital. Social capital is essential to a civil, engaged society and clearly contributes to wellness. Take a look at the Canadian Index of Well-Being as an example of this type of thinking.5
- As institutions, organizations, and agencies… we position ourselves as community leaders. I believe that most of us are acutely aware of the limits of what we can do to help the community. Certainly, as John McKnight, in his work on Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) points out to us, services do not equal community.6 In fact, an over reliance by formalized helping and on the system has contributed to the erosion of community. With this in mind, as helping organizations, we need to serve as exemplary leaders in encouraging hospitality, welcoming and neighbour to neighbour, “community building”.
- We cannot achieve our missions and have the impact we aspire to create by ourselves and simply by providing services. We know that community acceptance and engagement is absolutely pivotal. We are also learning that when the “gifts “of the people we serve are recognized and accepted (vs their labels and deficiencies), it’s a game changer. Clients become citizens and neighbours.
“Research shows that people who feel like they belong are more likely to engage with others, give their time, and participate in their communities. By focusing on welcoming, we are building the hidden capacity of our community without relying on grants, government assistance, or outside experts. ~ Bruce Anderson
I sincerely hope that for helping organizations, compliance with the AODA will not be an end in itself. I’d advocate that we choose to look at the challenge differently. Compliance with the AODA can be the starting point and can provide a positive example to our communities. We need to seize this opportunity and , as community leaders, engage people in conversations and practical actions which will make our organizations more welcoming and then widen that welcome as we contribute to the development of “deep community”.7
“I work from the firm belief that whatever the problem, community is the answer” ~ Margaret Wheatley8
1 Bruce Anderson, There are a lot of great resources on Bruce’s websitewww.communityactivators.com
2 Sherri Torjman, “Disabling the Disability Mindset (February 6, 2014) http://vibrantcanada.ca/blogs/sherri-trojman/disabling-disability-mindset
3 Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971) by Saul D. Alinsky http://www.amazon.com/Rules-Radicals-Saul-Alinsky/dp/0679721134
4 “Professional Helping Organizations: Why focus on welcoming?” This is a really useful 1 pager by Bruce Anderson of Community Activators.http://www.communityactivators.com/downloads/WhyFocusOnWelcoming.pdf There are a lot of other great resources on his website www.communityactivators.com
5 Canadian Index of Well-Being Canadian Index of Well-Being https://uwaterloo.ca/canadian-index-wellbeing/
6 See McKnight and Block website, Abundant Community , for ideas and resources http://www.abundantcommunity.com/home/home.html
7 Paul Born, President of the Tamarack Institute http://tamarackcommunity.ca/ , inDeepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times, distinguishes among “shallow community”, communities based on fear and “deep community”. In encouraging “deepening”, Born speaks to what should be at the core of the work of helping organizations http://www.amazon.ca/Deepening-Community-Finding-Together-Chaotic/dp/1626560978
8 Margaret Wheatley writes and teaches about community and leadership development. She is a great inspiration and encourages us to change our minds, our approaches and the spirit which guides our work.http://www.margaretwheatley.com/