Natural Supports: What the heck are they, anyway?

What the Heck are Natural Supports, Anyway?

September 2, 2021

By Caitlin Wray, Community Inclusion Facilitator – Inclusion Alberta

Imagine, if you will, a place where your needs are met in ways you may not even think about – where you have a support network that works so smoothly, so seamlessly, you may not even notice it exists.

In this wondrous land, you wake up in the morning and your partner has made you a cup of good, strong coffee just the way you like it, to get you going for the day. Your colleague picks you up in your carpool to drive you to work. Upon arrival, you sit down in your ergonomic chair and an administrative assistant hands you a stack of files he’s organized for you, to review before your afternoon meeting. Once you arrive at your meeting room, your colleagues take care of getting the technology working for your virtual meeting – they know you have many strengths, but technology is not one of them! After work, you text your friend to ask her to accompany you to a stressful medical procedure next week. When you get home your parents call to remind you that it’s Grandma’s birthday and, since you’re so busy, they’ve purchased a card, signed your name, and popped it in the mail for you.

Sound like a fantasy? Or, does it sound like most people’s everyday reality?

Most of us have managed to arrange our lives, communities, workplaces and families in ways that naturally support us. We don’t often think of these ways as ‘help’, but of course that’s exactly what we’re getting. All day, every day, we are getting various forms of help to do what we need to do, to live our lives.

How curious it is then, when we view this natural scaffolding as something excessive or burdensome as soon as people with disabilities require them. Or worse: when we assume a person with a disability can’t or shouldn’t be in a space because we haven’t put in the effort to establish the same type of natural supports for them, that we’ve established automatically for ourselves.

What we know from decades of supporting people with developmental disabilities in their homes, workplaces, schools, faith communities and recreational activities – is that everyone benefits from natural supports. Thoughtful planning for and facilitation of natural supports can help foster successful, genuine inclusion.

We also know this doesn’t happen magically or spontaneously. In the vast majority of situations, truly meaningful natural supports require intentional planning and skilled facilitation that’s tailored to the individual, their needs, and their vision for their own life. Developing natural supports, capitalizing on community capacity and building inclusive lives will most often require a combination of paid and natural supports working cohesively.

It’s crucial to remember that – just as natural supports for people without disabilities are broad and diverse, so too must they be for people with disabilities. It is unreasonable and unsustainable to expect family members to become lifelong sole caregivers for their adult children. The majority of individuals with developmental disabilities will require some level of paid support to live meaningful, inclusive lives and many will always rely on government funded staff to some degree. When done well and thoughtfully, funding can be used to intentionally foster and facilitate natural supports, while minimizing the need for paid supports.

So, let’s take a trip back to that wondrous land of natural supports:

A teacher notices that Jamal, who’s in a wheelchair and non-speaking, wants to zoom around at recess with the kids playing tag. So, she asks Sam, a track and field runner from their class to push, pull and whiz Jamal in the wheelchair around the playground with all the other kids (remember your carpool getting you where you needed to go, and relying on your friend for support at your doctor’s appointment?). After they’ve played together for a week at recess, the kids invite Jamal to stick around after school to play soccer, and happily take turns pushing his wheelchair.

Joan’s employee Ash, who has a developmental disability, has a hard time keeping track of time on his breaks. Joan asks their co-worker Kerima to give him a friendly reminder when he’s approaching the end of his break time (remember your administrative assistant with the pre-organized files, and the colleagues who get the technology working for you?). Kerima notices Ash has a great sense of humour, and they joke around with each other about Ash’s terrible sense of time and Kerima’s terrible fashion sense. Ash’s coworkers all get to know him better through his lighthearted relationship with Kerima, and for his birthday, they all get together to buy him a smart watch and take him out for dinner.

When Lu graduated high school, her family was encouraged to put her in a group home because of her developmental disability, but they knew this wasn’t the safest or healthiest option for Lu. Instead, they found Mika who shares Lu’s love of all things Anime, to help provide natural supports as a roommate in a shared apartment. Lu has a paid inclusion support worker who provides the support she needs at work, and who also supports her in various community roles like volunteering at a cat rescue and helping to coordinate her local Community Watch program. As a roommate, Mika helps Lu get ready in the mornings before they both leave for work and takes care of the grocery shopping because big stores are too overwhelming for Lu (remember your partner who makes you coffee every morning, and your parents who take care of errands for you when you’re busy?). In return, Lu loves to cook Mika her favourite meal every Tuesday, and Friday is always homemade pizza night when they watch their favourite Anime shows together.

These are just a few of the countless examples of how we can all benefit from building networks of natural supports. It’s important to be thoughtful and intentional about fostering natural supports – notice who is naturally comfortable with this person and who is this person naturally comfortable with (reciprocity), who inherently treats them with respect and recognizes their capabilities, who shares their interests and passions? These are good indicators of potentially great natural supports.

Building natural supports takes time, skill and intention, and the only way to get started is by connecting with a variety of people in everyday community spaces, recreational activities, workplaces, faith communities and schools. Many people with developmental disabilities will also require paid supports to meet their needs, but natural supports will always be – for all of us – an integral part of a healthy, vibrant, good life.