Marlene Butteriss, Queensland Council of Social Service

When talking about how services work with, support and connect with people with a disability, the idea of being ‘person centred’ has been around for a long time. It’s a pretty easy term to understand, but a little harder to put into practice.

Why focus on person centred approaches?

Being person centred is about making sure the person with the disability is at the centre of all decisions and actions that relate to their life and their support. It seems like a fairly obvious way to look at how services are with people who require some supports or services, but it hasn’t always been this way. 

Many years ago, the most common approaches were ‘service centred’ where support and services provided were specifically related to what the service could offer, rather than what the person required.

Another common approach was ‘problem centred’ where the therapist or the worker were the experts, and based on their skills and experience, they made the decisions about the person’s life.

Nowadays, being person centred automatically assumes the belief that every person has the capacity to shape their life if they are given the right support to do so, and the main objective of support is to maintain and build on this capacity. Thus the assumption of person centred practices is that the person requesting or requiring support is the driver, and not the organisation or service providing the support.

Principles of person centred practices

Person centred practices are based on certain core beliefs:

  • People being served require close real and right relationships with people who listen to them and who do not hide behind the façade of professionalism.
  • People being served have their own individual strengths, abilities, talents and networks that are to be used in achieving meaningful and life giving goals.
  • People being served have a right to a real life, including a right to be part of their community, to have employment, to have family and friends, to choose where to live and with whom, to choose who supports them and what they do with their time.

This doesn’t mean that services are not valued, or that the skills and experience of therapists and support workers and others in the person’s life are not listened to. Rather, it means that services work together with the person and their family to ensure that the person gets what they need to move forward in the direction that they choose.

Person centred approaches and independence

Being person centred doesn’t necessarily mean that a person has to be completely independent, that is not the goal. It was common to act in ways that suggested a person had to be independent and do everything for themself, and to assume that if something got in the way of total independence, then that disability had to be ‘cured’ or ‘fixed’.  This wasn’t a very helpful approach for anyone whose disability was permanent.

Instead, a person centred approach sees the person as a whole human being regardless of disability, illness or mental health concerns. In this sense, being person centred assumes that the person is capable of determining the direction of their life, at any stage in their life. What may change is the amount of support that is offered to the person in response to what is happening at a particular point in time in their life or with their health or wellbeing.

Really simply put, rather that asking “what’s wrong and how do we fix it?” A person centred approach asks “who are you, and what do you need to live the life you want to lead?”

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