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Creative Steps Toward Inclusion: Canadian Community Decision-making

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Emily DiMatteo
August 1, 2022

Although the availability of programming for people with disabilities varies across communities, community programs often provide opportunities for educational learning, self-expression and social connection. The direct involvement of participants in the planning and design of such programs is a critical component of true inclusion, as was demonstrated by L’Arche Antigonish in Nova Scotia. 

L’Arche is an international private voluntary organization that works for the creation and growth of homes, programs and support networks for people who have intellectual disabilities. L’Arche Antigonish is a Canadian community in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. In 2015, L’Arche Antigonish initiated a process to involve participants with disabilities in creating a new collective vision for their art program called “Hearts & Hands.” As important stakeholders and direct participants, their input was important to the organization, especially given tension that developed within the community surrounding the art program and a previous lack of direct participant involvement.

After partnering with an OceanPath Fellow (a local youth member in an experiential education program), L’Arche Antigonish decided to implement a methodology called “Planning Alternative Tomorrows with Hope” (PATH). This person-centered brainstorming process used graphics and visuals and served as a starting point for the project’s goal of revamping the “Hearts & Hands” art program by directly engaging with participants with disabilities. Supported by informed guidance from those specializing in social inclusion and accessibility, the OceanPath fellow spearheaded the overall project in cooperation with L’Arche Antigonish.

Following participant recruitment, the project began with a preliminary brainstorming session using the PATH method. This first session involved various stakeholders from the L’Arche Antigonish community including program participants, staff, leadership team members and volunteers. Several communication methods were implemented to facilitate the communication of all participants, including, for example, techniques for non-verbal communicators, sign language interpreters and visual representations of ideas with pictures instead of words. Additionally, small group sessions were held afterward to provide a safe and less intimidating space for some participants. The PATH process in the brainstorming phase offered the community a unique chance to collaborate in an inclusive way, while increasing the direct cooperation of participants and decision-makers. The process was supplemented with evaluation methods including personal reflections and exit interviews.

Following this engagement, a new vision of “Hearts & Hands” was drafted with specific statements about inclusion and a reformulated vision of the program that focused on using creativity as a tool for expression. Stemming directly from participant input, programming decisions such as the creation of a drama group were implemented. Participants with disabilities expressed interest in being included in future organizational planning, which was supported structurally with the redesign of meetings to begin with participant input.

Overall, the use of PATH as a decision-making tool was well-received by both participants and leadership and has been used in other organizational projects including the creation of a community space in 2017. The organization’s experiments with inclusive practices in participation have marked an organizational shift in commitments to prioritize the voices of people with disabilities. This is in line with the social model of disability, where societal structures and attitudes are addressed to remove barriers for people with disabilities. Many intangible outputs also resulted from this commitment, including the increased empowerment of participants after cooperating with decision-makers. As organizations and policymakers continue to address issues of inclusion, L’Arche Antigonish demonstrates that accessible and adaptable methods for the direct participation of people with disabilities leads to informed and collaborative community outcomes.

To learn more about this case visit https://participedia.net/case/5187. To read about other innovative applications of public participation, visit www.participedia.net.

Author: Emily DiMatteo is pursuing a Master of Arts in international relations and a certificate of advanced study in the European Union and contemporary Europe at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She is passionate about the empowerment and inclusion of people with disabilities, with a focus on international disability policy. Prior to her graduate studies, she completed a Fulbright U.S. Student Scholarship in the Czech Republic from 2019-2020. Emily received her Honors Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Villanova University in December 2018, summa cum laude.

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