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John Bair
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What Is Person-Centered Planning?

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People with disabilities often require support from other people and institutions. Along with numerous non-profits, the government has multiple agencies that offer a range of “services” for people with disabilities. In the vast majority of cases, these social services were designed – and continue to be implemented – by able-bodied people.

Social Services Can (Unintentionally) Dis-Empower People With Disabilities

As thinkers and advocates began to point out in the late 1980s, social services tend to be “service-centered,” rather than “person-centered.”In general, these services are focused on identifying what a person is unable to do, and provide “support” based solely on that inability. Even more fundamentally, the goal of many social programs is not to empower individuals, but force them into services and routines that the programs themselves think are appropriate.

There’s little – if any – consideration of what the person would like to do with their own lives, or what the person is already able to do. Instead of encouraging people with disabilities to integrate into general society, the social services offered by most governmental institutions are apt to segregate and exclude people even more – despite the fact that these very services were established to ameliorate problems of social exclusion and dis-empowerment.

Taking a “facilities” approach to services is one example. Rather than provide opportunities for people with disabilities to interact and form friendships with people in the general population, many fundamental government services continue to sequester people with disabilities in group programs – where they only interact with other people who share specific disability labels.

Focusing On Abilities, Rather Than Dis-Abilities

But of course, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are people first, not labels. Everyone has something of value that they can bring to friends, to family members, to social interactions and to their community.

Person-centered planning (PCP) is about identifying those gifts, and creating a life plan that keeps the person, not their label, at the center. PCP focuses on a person’s abilities, rather than what they are unable to do. In crafting a person-centered plan, the key questions will be:

  1. What are the person’s strengths, abilities and gifts?
  2. What is important to the person now?
  3. What does the person want to pursue in the future? What are their dreams?

None of these questions can – or should – be answered by someone else. While family members and friends, along with a facilitator experienced in person-centered planning, can be helpful in planning meetings, the focus person must remain the central voice in this conversation. Even more importantly, every other person in the room should be someone the focus person wants to be there.

In practice, person-centered planning is a conversation – one that focuses on people, their needs and desires, rather than the social services that may be available to serve them. This is about empowering the “focus person” in planning their own future. Only after identifying a person’s strengths and goals, can we turn to the question of what support systems they will need to meet those goals. Then, we can start thinking about making those life goals a reality.

More Resources On Person-Centered Planning

Today, person-centered planning has become increasingly formalized. While there are various methodologies on offer, you can find step-by-step guides to creating a person-centered plan all over the place, including at the National Parent Center on Transition and Employment. In the beginning, however, PCP began as:

  1. a critique of “service-centered” approaches to supporting people with disabilities
  2. a philosophy, one that emphasizes the centrality of a particular person, with particular abilities and goals, rather than their disability label and the existing services available

No matter the specific approach, this philosophy remains at the core of person-centered planning. To learn more about putting the philosophy behind PCP into action, check out these other guides: