Back in the mid-‘90’s, when they were making a major revision of Michigan’s Mental Health Code, some people in a position to do so inserted language that made Person-Centered Planning mandatory. Some people at the time hailed that move as a great step forward in the march to improve conditions for people with developmental disabilities in this state. Others were not so sure. Today anyone would be hard put to make the case that the amendment has brought about all that it promised. It caused some changes that were beneficial, but it did not bring about the wide-spread use of a dynamic process that person-centered planning had been prior to the amendment. Nor have the ‘Revised Practice Guidelines ‘ issued in October 2002, with its long list of guidelines, elements, strategies and references—12 pages in all—all sounding good—introduced the kind of action that has radically changed lives.
Today Mental Health professionals responsible for person-centered planning have made it a rather routine step necessary to complete the required Individual Plan of Service.
Despite this somewhat grim analysis, there is hope for a better outcome. The answer, I think, lies in reverting back to the true intent of the process. In an interview in Conversations on Citizenship & Person-Centered Work Michael Smull talks about ‘person-centered thinking’ and says that the core skill is ‘sorting out what is Important To and Important For a person and finding a balance between the two.
Smull is suggesting that people using the process have two primary responsibilities. The first is figuring out what the individual with a disability wants for himself/herself, and the second is making judgments about what a person needs. Person-centered planning is an organized way to keep the focus on what the individual wants and to develop a process for providing the support necessary to attain it.
In order to re-capture the true intent of person-centered planning we have to go beyond routine and use a process that keeps the focus on the person and not the system’s needs, involve people who matter outside the service delivery system, and uses common sense ways to mobilize these people and paid professionals in an ongoing support network for each person.
I am reminded of an article by that Rebecca Shuman wrote back in 1997 for the Institute publication, POLICY PERSPECTIVES. Rebecca said:
“Some of the world’s greatest ideas, art, poetry, literature, inventions, deal-making and political intrigue have occurred in restaurants when people come together over a good meal or a cup of coffee. Many times the germ of greatness has been sketched out on a napkin or a place mat. Every day, ordinary people heal relationships, plan vacations, make-over their kitchens, choose a car, select a stock, agonize over which college to go to, figure out how to change things at work, etc., while sitting at a booth in a restaurant with a friend, child, lover, husband, wife, co-worker or some combination thereof." (See Rebecca Shuman, "Person-centered Planning", Policy Perspectives On Person-Centered Planning A Publication of The Arcadia Institute, September 1997.)
Doing person-centered planning requires that we grasp the spirit behind the idea of writing a plan on a napkin. No, we do not need a new set of guidelines on how to choose a restaurant or what color napkin to use. We need to get back to the heart of the idea—figuring out what people really need, as they see it and as we learn to see it by working hard to get to know each person.