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Staff Retreat 2014: Being Worthy!

They’ve never quite achieved the true status of “annual” but nearly-yearly staff retreats are important to LiveWorkPlay not only to build hope and resiliency in the staff team through education and team-building, but for identifying opportunities and concerns, and making plans for addressing them.

Paul, George, Anthony, Daniel, Jen, Caitlin, Keenan, Alex, Ellyce, Julie, Allison, Grace

Over the years the team has helped establish priorities and strategies that have ensured LiveWorkPlay remains on the leading-edge, not only with respect to our direct supports to individuals, but also our ability to help the community welcome people with intellectual disabilities to live, work, and play as valued citizens.

One of the key activities for this year’s two-day retreat was a formal presentation and discussion of what we are calling the LiveWorkPlay Theory of Social Change. LiveWorkPlay has been engaged in a Theory of Change (TOC) process since October of 2013 with coach Linda Graupner from Innoweave. Innoweave is an initiative of The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, in collaboration with Social Innovation Generation (SiG), thought leaders, academics, and partners from the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors.

The “Impact and Strategic Clarity Module” completed by LiveWorkPlay was supported by a partial grant. Granting partners for the Impact Module include the Ontario Trillium Foundation,  United Way Centraide Canada, PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada Foundation, United Way York Region, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and CISCO Canada.

toc-smallIn brief, the TOC process required collection of internal and external data, research, analysis, and discussion via email, conference calls, and in-person meetings. There was also a day-long workshop with two other organizations working on their own theory of change.

Organizations engage in this TOC process to clarify what they aim to achieve, how they will achieve it, and how they will measure their success. Accordingly, the TOC leadership team conducted an in-depth analysis of our own supports and services data, and examined external evidence to clarify where to focus our efforts and how to measure success.

If you are thinking that LiveWorkPlay already has a lot of clarity about our aims, methods, and measurement, our coach did not disagree with you, and the point was to move us towards excellence, not only in what we do, but in how we report on our work. Particularly as regards measurement, the ability to report on our impact (with respect to individuals as well as families, partners, and the community) is really at an early stage and in need of refinement.

The team built ten lego models to help express the LiveWorkPlay theory of social change!
The team built ten lego models to help express the LiveWorkPlay theory of social change!

Reporting on impact means going way beyond typical data collection such as how many people we serve, for how many hours, and in support of what type of activities. If that is all we report, then it is impossible to understand how our work differs from other organizations. This is a sector-wide problem that we reported to the Select Committee on Developmental Services, and we want to lead by example. We know we are leaders in our field and that we change the lives of individuals and families and also make our community stronger, but now we can help explain it better!

The entire two days of the staff retreat was not devoted to the TOC, so for those who are interested, you are invited to visit our LiveWorkPlay Theory of Social Change page! There you can see a flow chart, a bullet list, and an incredible array of references that is still in development. The theory of change process is never over, and so we invite your feedback about what you see!

So what else went on?

LiveWorkPlay has made a commitment to support education and training for staff, and they are expected to give back by sharing their experiences with their peers. On this occasion, Daniel Harris and Caitlin Fortier each made a one hour presentation on the topics of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These presentations were based on their attendance at professional seminars on these topics, adapted for application to supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Based on Daniel’s presentation, much discussion was generated about the important role LiveWorkPlay staff play in helping our members learning to prevent and also to manage the experience of emotional dysregulation. In other words, how to cope with high levels of emotional distress – to identify when it is happening to try to achieve a state of greater calm, and strategies to return to a less stressful state when emotional dysregulation is occurring. The ability to self-regulate one’s emotions is critical to success in almost any environment, and so the ability of LiveWorkPlay staff to help our members learn and practice these skills will impact on success with their home, work, and social situations.

There was an equally active discussion following Caitlin’s presentation. Because people with intellectual disabilities are much more likely to experience abuse than the general population, they have a resulting higher incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, the reporting of abuse is more difficult for people with intellectual disabilities, not only due to communications differences, but because they often lack power and control in their lives and there are many disincentives to speaking out.

Due to these and other factors, people with intellectual disabilities may get labelled and treated for “behaviours” that are actually a response to trauma, and this serves to reinforce their silence. How some of this information impacts uniquely on agencies and staff at an organization like LiveWorkPlay is that the onset of PTSD symptoms may occur as a result of “feeling safe for the first time.” This is important information because LiveWorkPlay staff often support individuals in new life situations and PTSD may be revealed at this time.


In addition to direct presentations by staff, Julie Kingstone assembled a learning agenda that also included a number of TED talk videos to spark discussion.  One of the most memorable and relevant to our daily work was a presentation about “The power of vulnerability.”

Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection? The things I can tell you about it: it’s universal; we all have it. The only people who don’t experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this “I’m not good enough…thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough.” The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability…in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen. 

The implications for people with intellectual disabilities and those who support them are obvious. For example, there are expectations that people quickly understand their social environments and the many unspoken rules that are found in workplaces or community venues, and there are consequences to trying and failing. At LiveWorkPlay we support the removal of barriers that keep people with intellectual disabilities from participating and contributing in all aspects of community life. We can never forget that as challenging as this may be for LiveWorkPlay staff, family members, and other supporters, the individual who walks through that door for the first time is assuming tremendous risk – what at times will indeed be an experience of excruciating vulnerability.


This underscores a part of what is included in the LiveWorkPlay Theory of Social Change, which is that an important part of our work is to investigate the social norms of community venues, and develop relationships with potential social gatekeepers who can support a welcoming and inclusive environment. See the video (right) “Understanding Community” with Al Condeluci, who first exposed us to this concept and continues to champion it worldwide!

It is easy enough to help an individual register for a course, club, or class and point them towards the door. What makes LiveWorkPlay different is our understanding that our work goes much beyond joining a team or getting of a job. We need to understand those environments and the people who have ownership of them so that we can help prepare our members to experience them with success, and also offer support to those who want to be welcoming and inclusive, but need to overcome their own fears and anxieties about people with disabilities. We cultivate social inclusion champions!


One of the more practical and data-based activities of the retreat involved an analysis of person-centred reviews obtained by Allison Moores. These are essentially a collection of “what is working” and “what is not working” in the lives of our members (we use templates from Helen Sanderson and Associations for this work). The task is to consider this information in light of strategic changes that might be required at the operational level of LiveWorkPlay (the Board of Directors also uses this data for long-term visioning).

After some discussion with flow charts and sticky papers covering the walls, the entire staff team agreed that helping to support the development of intimate (partner) relationships for our members topped the list of “what is not working” according to the person-centred review feedback. This of course has many implications in the lives of our members. While many reported with great joy such important life transitions as moving to their first apartment, getting and keeping a job that they like, and getting out and about in the community with friends, having achieved those types of milestones (to put it quite simply) they now want a boyfriend or girlfriend! They want to love and be loved at the most intimate level of human connection.


We have no easy answers in this regard. We have taken the step of acknowledging that this is a current high priority for many of our members, and that we need to talk with them about it and learn what we can from the experience of other people and organizations about how we can help.

On a concluding note, the retreat also offered a few moments for quiet contemplation. And one of the topics we quietly contemplated was consideration within the staff team but also with respect to our members and families about communication styles, and the need to ensure that one does not need to be a “gregarious communicator” in order to be heard. There is a growing tendency in society to emphasize the input from extroverts or extroverted behaviour and for introverts or introverted behaviour to take a back seat. We invite you to view the TED video below and to consider that message.

The staff retreat 2014 was highly successful. There were moments of joy as well as moments of concern, which is appropriate to our work. While our members continue to move forward in their lives, generating daily cause for celebration, the world remains a complicated place, with choices, rewards, and risks that have not been a part of the lives of those with intellectual disabilities, their family, or other supporters who came before. We seek to offer guidance, but we must also recognize with all due humility that we are also along for the ride. In the end, an inclusive society is not rooted in the mandate or activities of any one agency or collection of agencies. It is about the hearts and minds of all individuals and organizations in any given community, city, province, or country believing in the value of all citizens, and taking the steps required to welcome and include them as full citizens.