Don’t Let Person Centered Planning and IEPs Become Empty Paperwork

I once had a client who was in a psychiatric hospital. We were getting her out of the hospital using Olmstead advocacy. As part of the transition, the social worker was required to do a person centered plan for my client.

In preparation for the meeting, my client and I had discussed what she wanted. She was very clear that she wanted three specific things when she got out of the hospital. She wanted me to tell the social worker what those three things were. I had encouraged her to say these things herself, but she did not trust the people at the meeting and felt strongly that I should raise these points as her attorney.

Two people having a discussion.  One is in a wheelchair

When the meeting started, I said to the social worker that my client wanted three things. The social worker became annoyed. She said, “please do not interrupt we have to fill out this person centered plan.” I said “but these are the three things that my client wants.” The social worker said, “excuse me, please do not interrupt, we have to fill out this form.”

I’ve been to many meetings like this. Often, there are forms to be filled out. The forms at their heart are good, but too often the forms become mere checklists for someone to fill out without actually taking account of the purposes and reasons for the documents.

This happens particularly at schools in IEP (individualized education planning) meetings, where teachers, school psychologists, and parents meet to discuss what a child with a disability needs for his or her education at school. There are many forms to be filled out at these meetings. In my experience, the meetings become a time where paperwork is filled out about a child in such a way that the child almost disappears in the morass of questions and answers that use big teaching words but that have little meaning.

In both person centered planning and IEPs (as well as Money Follows the Person and other transition meetings), it is essential to enable the person “being discussed” to have the power and voice to truly plan his or her own future. The first step in doing this is to give the person information and time before the meeting so he or she can prepare for the meeting. Second, at the meeting, there should not be any paperwork at the start. The start should be a conversation with the individual to hear what he or she wants, what he or she is concerned about, and what he or she needs. Third, there should be a conversation about the gifts and abilities of the individual. (These meetings focus way too much on the impairments/deficits of the individual). One of the main ways all of us grow is by building up our strengths and nurturing our gifts rather than focusing on our weaknesses or impairments.

Fortunately, when person centered planning is done not by people who have to do it because they have to fill out forms, but by loved ones, disability advocates and self advocates, and others who truly understand why and how to do person centered planning, it can be a powerful and wonderful, and even a life-changing, experience. As we move forward, we all need to capture the beauty and power of person centered planning and resist making such planning bureaucratic emptiness.

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