“Every citizen has gifts. A strong community knows it needs everyone to give their gifts.”

– John McKnight, Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute

In supporting people with disabilities in our communities, it is important to shift from using a lens shaded by needs and wear one focused on seeing people’s strengths, talents and assets. This new lens reflects the potential of each person and helps to move the conversation from one marked by:

  • listing the services a person may need, to one identifying the contributions an individual can make,
  • seeing a consumer as a user of services, to one recognizing a citizen who can access shared resources and have valued roles in their community, and
  • viewing programs with limited resources, to one recognizing relationships and connections to one’s community with endless possibilities.

The 2016 conference for TASH, an international advocacy organization, provides a unique opportunity for people with disabilities, their family members, other advocates, and people who work in the disability field to come together and learn about strategies that meet the objective of this year’s conference to “reignite their passion for an inclusive world.” I led an interactive session that engaged participants in using tools to clear the path to inclusion, employment and community connections. Attendees learned how to use strength-based strategies to expand and translate their interests, gifts and talents into real connections and a better quality of life.

These strategies, when applied to community inclusion for people with disabilities, are based on an exploration of an individual’s gifts of hand, heart, head and human connection. Gifts of the hand are the things we know how to do. These are our skills, habits or rituals that we learn or naturally possess. Gifts of the heart include our passion or things we care enough about to give of our time and effort. Gifts of the head are the things we know or want to learn about, such as an interest in a local sports team or in a hobby. Gifts of human connections are the people we know and who know us – often called our social capital.

For decades, we have kept those who are different from us, including people with disabilities, separated from the community or segregated in spaces society thinks they feel more comfortable and can live in more safely. While approaches to school inclusion and community living strategies have tried to address this, these efforts have often been more focused on meeting the needs of professionals or systems, as opposed to the needs of people. Far too many people living in their communities are segregated from typical experiences and do not have access to opportunities they deserve as citizens. However, when we support people to create connections to others in their communities based on their natural gifts and assets, opportunities for real inclusion develop.