Staff Profiles

Profile:  BARRY BUCKNELL

I started with the Association in 1979 as the Vocational (Day Programs) Manager and have been Executive Director since 1984. It is now 2006 and I have seen much change. Actually, I’ve seen most “changes” change, again and again; over and over, as if “busyness” or change itself were something of an addiction for people. Still, there are two changes that, to me, stand out; two events that colour everything we’ve done and everything we’ve tried to do.

One was the coming of Personal Planning in 1986; the other has been the organization’s ability to ‘mix’ a social goal with a successful economic practice… economics not based on charity.
Judy Tremaine and Katherine Fleming were working for our Residential services in 1986 and, truthfully, it was their enthusiasm and commitment to Personal Planning that made it succeed.

In the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s, “service” to a person with developmental disability revolved around teaching skills. By the mid-1980’s it was obvious that while teaching skills might be good for some things (especially defining ‘service’), it did not give a person much of a life. So, we were searching for a new approach when Judy and Katherine brought “24-Hour Planning” back from a workshop they had attended. Those of us who had not been there were skeptical. It was not immediately clear to us that this could make a difference… but it was crystal clear to Judy and Katherine.

“24-Hour Planning” re-focused service to better reflect an individual’s wants, needs and desires, rather than ‘program planning’, which tended to focus on what things a person could not do (the‘skills they did not have) and then prescribe what it would take to ‘fix’ the person (i.e.teach the skill). To someone not involved in this stuff the difference may not seem significant but it is a huge change. Maybe the easiest way to understand the difference is that in the earlier approach, “planning” could (and often did) take place without the person with the disability even being present; planning was ‘about them, not ‘with’ them. The new approach put the person entirely in the centre of the effort and, with good facilitation, had a profoundly different and personalized outcome.

In fact ‘24-Hour Planning’ had such a significant impact that it was almost abolished in a case of mistaken identity!

In 1980, the Alberta economy fell flat and for the next five years there were no funding increases for rehabilitation services at all. Added to that was the fact that the government was unhappy with how it transferred funds to community agencies. Up until then, a simple system of grants was used but, when the economy went bust, they began to believe that one of the reasons for this economic misfortune was that human services, generally, were inefficient and ought to be run like businesses. (It was our earliest version of “doing more with less”!)

By 1985, with still no change in funding support levels, the pressure to serve new people was growing intense both on agencies and the province. Pressure inspires creativity I suppose, so, at almost the same time as we were beginning to use 24 Hour Planning (1986), someone in the provincial government found a “new” way to fund new services.

Actually, it was kind of a ‘hole’ in ‘Social Assistance’ policy (‘Welfare’ would be the common name). Welfare, it turned out, could be used to fund any basic ‘need’ a person could prove they had. I’m sure more bureaucratic language was used but it was seen by most people as an “opportunity”. The policy had been around for some time I would suppose, but it had not (typically) been used before for people we worked with. Welfare was actually part of a different government department. Nonetheless, if people with disabilities were eligible for Welfare, it could be used to pay for whatever supports they may need. It was usually not too difficult for most people with developmental disabilities to meet eligibility for that program (people with disabilities were as financially ‘poor’ then as they are today) and as a result the door to money opened wide. Some called it a ‘backdoor’ but regardless of how it was labeled, that was how Individualized Finding was first “invented”.

So, just as we were beginning to use ‘24 Hour Planning’ in Grande Prairie, this ‘backdoor’ funding was also getting started across the province. Yet, the ‘Teaching Skills’ system of planning, used almost everywhere else in the province, had no internal controls and was never designed to fund services this ‘new’ way. It seems inevitable now, but within two years financial ‘abuses’, real or imagined, were popping up everywhere making the bureaucracy crazy.

I won’t go into that too much but over the same time Judy and Katherine’s work developing 24 Hour Planning was making a huge, positive impact here. In a way perhaps we were lucky. One of the first people they worked with using the technique had been having absolutely terrible problems; problems that were of such a risk to her, and those around her, that institutional placement was becoming the only remaining choice.

There’s no doubt that the ‘new’ funding source helped, but the real difference was in the planning and the affect it had on her by becoming the centre of the plan. It sounds simple but the balanced, person-centred technique gave her and our staff a sharply different, and better, way of doing things. Her success, and its speed, were stunning… and wonderful!

Obviously, we were sold on the approach. When financial ‘abuses’ began to be found in other parts of the province, our hope was that it would catch on, because ‘24-Hour Planning’ could be easily adapted to exercising basic financial control. Instead, the province pretty well buried it!

It was too new, I suppose, to be seen as distinct or different from normal practices. So, without evaluation, policy makers outside this region saw 24 Hour Planning as no different than anything else; it was part of the cause of the abuse. Rather than a possible tool for getting out of the mess, it was thought to be part of the problem. As a result, 24 Hour Planning was, for a while, appropriated by government in order to cure the problem by controlling ‘needs’, or what got defined as ‘needs’.

In the northwest region though, it was kind of a back-handed compliment. Government staff here had already seen the value in the approach. They’d been as positively influenced as we had been and when responsibility for its practice more or less fell into their control they actually helped influence its continued use and development. It is, to me, a kind of feather in Association’s and Katherine and Judy’s caps to have played such a key role in so effectively establishing the approach here, that it won such wide acceptance, even with that kind of obstacle.

Being part of helping Personal Planning become an enduring technique of service design has meant a great deal to me and will always be a highlight. I could easily see and experience the remarkable changes it made to many of the people we served. And just as easily, I could enjoy the privilege of working with the remarkable people who made it happen here.

While people make change happen, it still takes money to support them. And 24 Hour Planning, or Personal Planning as it’s now called, may not have had the same impact without the Association having developed a broader financial base.

Like most people in rehabilitation in 1979 when I started, it was natural to try and secure jobs for people with disabilities in ‘regular’ businesses. By 1980, we had about a dozen people (out of 50) working ‘normal’ jobs. But in 1980, when the economy collapsed, within six months every one of those people lost their jobs. In fact, regardless of their longevity or performance on the job, they were almost always the first to be let go.

It was a lesson both stunning and instructive; stunning in just how quickly, stable, productive people could have their lives turned upside down and instructive in our understanding that businesses do not exist to create jobs. Jobs are a side-effect. Often a necessary side-effect, to be sure, but jobs are not why businesses exist. The point of a business is to pursue profit, not provide opportunities or income to people.

It was a clear and simple lesson and if the Association wanted something more complex, something richer from business (i.e. something more than simply profit) then it would have to take a different path. If we wanted to mix the business of business, with, to us, the more important, but vaguer objectives of our Mission, then it would be necessary for us to take up ownership of at least some businesses ourselves; involve people with disabilities in them and be profitable.

It’s an impressive development now. There are a number of businesses and they all have challenges of one kind or another in them. People we serve still get jobs in many other businesses or spend their days volunteering, etc. But there remains a core group of enterprises that have helped shape lives for decades now.

There is an image in my mind that captures this whole business of how we have used businesses.
The first serious production contract we won (we openly bid on work like any other contractor) was in 1980 and it was to build thousands of units of a certain kind of product, in a specific amount of time for a company out of Edmonton. We had no storage space, so when 250 units were ready (the amount needed to fill a transport truck) they had to be shipped. On the day we loaded the first shipment literally everyone stopped work and went outside to watch. There was pride in many of the of the faces looking on. People had made things other people in other businesses wanted, really wanted. It did not matter whether you were staff or client. All that mattered was that in some tangible way, we’d arrived. All of us.

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