I met a lovely, gentle young man called David when facilitating a Big Plan in Glasgow some years ago. We always use a microphone in the Big Plan sessions which we do with young disabled people and their families. It helps an individual’s voice to be heard and for others to listen when each participant takes their turn to feed back to the group of 30-40 people gathered in the room. He did try the microphone at the Introductory Session but my initial impression was that it was quite hard for him and he was rather shy.
Later in the sessions we did an exercise where we talked about the ‘labels’ people might have acquired in their lives. We went on to say that whilst they may tell us a little about a person they do not tell us what are the most important things about them. We suggested that people might prefer to be known by their ‘badges’ rather than ‘labels’ and asked participants to come up with some ‘badges’ of their own. As an aside we never ask people to discuss their labels in the Big Plan – they have probably done rather too much of this in their lives already!
Over the years this work together has led to some amazing examples of people discovering and actively striving for positive and valued roles in their lives. I remember another young man in Glasgow who talked about seeing himself as a “Leader” and watched his Mother nearly fall out of her chair with a mixture of shock and pride, or the young man in Edinburgh who blushed with surprise and delight when his little niece declared authoritatively that he was “The Best Uncle in the World! It is simply a lovely exercise to be part of.
Anyway, when David fed back his badges to the very large and mixed group that evening in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, he said several things but the one that stuck in my mind and that of everyone else there I suspect, was that he said he would like to be known as ‘Dangerous Dave’. It seemed so incongruous. Dave was such a shy, quiet and well-mannered young man but when he and his family talked about how much he liked such as daring fun fair rides it began to make sense to the rest of us. Dave really liked the idea of activities with a bit of an ‘edge’. He enjoyed the rush of feeling that he felt when he was taking a chance and doing thrilling things. I have no idea how many opportunities he had had to be ‘dangerous’ in his young life but my experience of working with young disabled people suggested to me that it might not have been that many.
Fast forward three months to another meeting in Glasgow when we invited the group together again to see how things had gone since the initial Big Plan meetings. I met Dave and his Mother and asked them how things had gone. His Mother was a little apologetic and said, “We haven’t done that much,” then she explained, “But then we have been away on holiday to the Mediterranean.” Then she smiled and said “Oh but I must tell you what happened…” She then went on to describe how Dave and his big brother had approached their parents on the beach and asked if they could go Jet-skiing together. Almost surprised with herself, she recalled that, “I was about to say ‘No way!’” when I suddenly remembered the badges exercise and the group’s encounter with ‘Dangerous Dave’”.
It dawned on me that Dave’s Mother had remembered how important that part of his identity was to him. At the Big Plan she had heard that call from his heart to do something thrilling and ‘egdy’ and it had subtly shifted something inside her when she realised what it really meant to her son. So she took a deep breath, spoke with her husband and they allowed Dave to go Jet-skiing with his brother. I have no doubt that his sibling was tasked with all kinds of health and safety responsibilities!
So Dave got to be ‘dangerous’ and he and his brother had a great time Jet-skiing on holiday.
In my experience the impact of successfully taking chances to do something which really matters to a person invariably builds the person’s self-esteem and confidence and has benefits (or outcomes) far beyond the activity itself. In helping Dave find his voice, we gave his family the chance to understand better some of the things that mattered to him. In turn Dave will have had fun but also grown stronger, whilst his family will have experienced the joy (and no doubt trepidation) of seeing a young man emerge a little more into adulthood and self-determination.
I have often heard social work and social care professionals shake their heads and talk about how families can be ‘over-protective’ but families are almost always acting out of love - to either physically keep safe, or avoid disappointments and setbacks for their children. In services we may not think we are overprotective but may be just as likely to inadvertently create barriers to autonomy and self-determination by risk assessing a huge range of ordinary activities which those of us not dependent on support take for granted. At Thistle we believe life is for living and agree with Helen Keller’s famous statement that ‘Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing’. That requires us to consider risk in the context of supporting people to take those risks which are necessary to enhance their lives. We are pretty sure that Dangerous Dave would wholeheartedly endorse this approach.
If you'd like to learn more about the Big Plan, as well as other ways that Thistle works with young people, then click here.