At the heart of L’Arche is the relational support we provide to people with intellectual disabilities in our communities. Through our five Communities in Australia we offer a range of high quality personal support, person centered accommodation support, the opportunity to practice your spirituality and to live a meaningful life. Some people are supported in their own homes for a few hours per week whereas others are supported twenty-four hours a day in households located in local communities.
Highly motivated live-in and live-out Assistants who have chosen to share life with people with intellectual disabilities (Core Members) in households or live close in close proximity provide support. Integral to the model of support is Community. For L’Arche, this refers to the group of people who share common values and who come together regularly in friendship to interact, share a meal and enjoy each others’ company.
All of our houses provide good quality accommodation for Core Members and where appropriate they are adapted to the needs of the people supported. They are places where people experience a real sense of being at home. We all know that a home is more than a house, it is the place we feel comfortable to be in, both physically and emotionally, where we can be ourselves and be surrounded by friends and people who care and we care about.
L’Arche Communities are vibrant places of welcome, belonging and celebration with a clear commitment to offer Core Members the opportunities to lead fulfilling lives regardless of their disability. We support people with intellectual disabilities to be as included and involved as far as possible in all aspects of their lives including:
– Developing personal life skills
– Completing domestic tasks
– Faith development
– Personal care
– Community activities
– Voluntary work
– Health care needs
L’Arche deliberately structures our Communities, from how decisions are made in households to wider Community matters, to give Core Members a voice and decision-making authority. This is one strategy we use that demonstrates our real and natural commitment to living and implementing person centeredness practices.
Partnership and collaboration with others is vital to the success of L’Arche’s mission. The families of the people we support are important partners with us in ensuring that all our support is centred on the wishes, needs and dreams of people with intellectual disabilities (Core Members). Families are valued and encouraged to be involved in the life of the Community and to contribute in whatever way possible. Many Community members who freely offer their gifts and commitment enhance the vision of our Communities in many practical ways.
L’Arche also has a long history of working cooperatively with Government and Health Departments, other Non Government Agencies, housing associations and others organisations to provide good quality support, which is recognised as being truly responsive to people with intellectual disabilities.
L’Arche has always been good at speaking on behalf of people with limited communication skills. This is a valuable role, but it is not a substitute for including people in decision-making processes. The L’Arche Australia National Listening & Speaking Group was established to ensure the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities (Core Members) in processes and decision-making, which affect their lives and Communities.
The L’Arche Australia National Listening & Speaking Group is a sub committee of the National Board of L’Arche. Members of the group are Core Members who have been elected by their Communities to represent them nationally. The Group meets bi-annually and members need to bring decisions and issues to and from their Communities. That is, an issue is presented from the National Board or National Leader to the group. After they discuss it, they bring it back to the Core Members in their Community where they reach agreement. At the next meeting each Community presents it’s view and after a further discussion the group make a recommendation to the Board or National Leader.
Core Members have always been part of the decision-making process in their own L’Arche Communities. The traditional weekly ‘House Night’ grew from a desire to create a place in which everyone could ‘own’ and share the plans for the week ahead. Similar to the National Listening and Speaking group, the language and methods used to engage Core Members is presented in an accessible and plain English format.
Within their Communities in Australia, some Core Members are involved in interviews and appraisals, monthly listening groups and Community councils.
Mutual relationships and friendships continue to be at the heart of L’Arche.
“Will you be my friend?” This was the question that started L’Arche. A man with an intellectual disability, living in a large institution addressed this question to Jean Vanier. Jean, seeking an authentic way to say ‘yes’, invited some people from this institution to come and live with him, and so L’Arche began. Friendships continue to be at the heart of L’Arche – friendships that transcend the categories into which we all too easily put people; assistant, person with a learning disability, committee member, etc. Friendships don’t recognise these distinctions because friendships are relationships based on the mutual affection of one person to another, not because of what you do but because of who you are.
Some people have challenged L’Arches’ position on friendships. There are those who take the view that friendship between ‘service users’ and ’employees’ who are paid to support them is “unprofessional” and therefore should not be encouraged. We would prefer to say it is not “unprofessional”: rather, it is a mutual choice to go beyond the boundaries of professional relationships of support. Part of the debate relies on whether it is possible, as we contend, to provide a support service that meets the required professional standards and at the same time be friends with the people you are supporting. This allows for an environment of friendship to flourish and creates a sense of mutual belonging.
At policy level this can be seen as an example of the clash between what is referred to as the ‘professionalism’ and ‘duty of care’; on the one hand the ‘person centred care’ agenda. The ‘professionalism’ agenda refers to being with people with an intellectual disability only on the basis of your paid role or occupation. Indeed it can also refer to other attributes however the interpersonal ethic is keeping and maintain an emotional and social distance with the people you work with. The ‘duty of care’ agenda is concerned with keeping vulnerable adults safe and giving aspect of the service the highest priority. Of course in L’Arche we have checks and balances to minimize foreseeable risks. Nevertheless, life is inherently risky and although we attempt to eliminate risk there is a balance known as the ‘dignity of risk’ which, we support to enable people to lead meaningful and fulfilled adult lives.
The ‘person centered’ agenda, (and indeed L’Arche’s rasion d’etre) is concerned with putting people with intellectual disabilities in control of their own lives. The messages coming through from our experience of living and sharing our lives with people with intellectual disabilities and their families are clear. When we complete personal plans the constant theme from people is a desire for real, fulfilling friendships with people with and people without intellectual disabilities. While many in our Communities have robust friendships, if some of these friendships overlap with people in professional roles, so be it, our experience is that it gives our Core Members a greater sense of self esteem and purpose.