May 14, 2018

“We’re here to help each other live better with our disabilities:” First Living/Working Well Facilitator Peer-to-Peer Series Call a Success

A circle of clip art people surrounds the Living and Working Well with a Disability logo, Peer-to-Peer Series written underneath. RTC:Rural’s new Peer-to-Peer Series call for Living Well and Working Well with a Disability Facilitators was held on April 26, 2018. Twenty-six participants joined the conference call and shared their experiences, challenges, and successes as facilitators. The topic of the first call was managing group dynamics.

“A key difference between facilitating and teaching is that as a facilitator, you are not placing yourself in the position of expert or leader,” said RTC:Rural Training Associate Maggie Lawrence, who organized the call. “Facilitators help to guide the session and keep on track, but the control of the curriculum is given to the group. This means that the workshop sessions are heavy on discussion and peer support, and therefore each group can have a different feel and different dynamics.”

One of the more difficult tasks facing Living Well and Working Well facilitators is navigating and managing group dynamics, as participants bring so many different experiences and stories to the workshop. The process of group cohesion, that feeling of shared understanding, is always changing and can be difficult to foster.

Facilitators on this call shared experiences of having workshop participants who felt like they didn’t belong, or that they shouldn’t talk because their situation “isn’t that bad.” For example, one facilitator shared, “I have found in a few of my sessions I may have some people living with disabilities that are quadriplegic, paraplegics and wheelchair users, and then I have the individual who may have a visual disability or a slight hearing loss, and they come to me and they say, I feel guilty because my disability isn’t as severe as that person’s.” Said another facilitator, “[Participants say,] ‘I don’t think I belong here. I don’t feel my disability is severe enough to be here.’“

How do you both acknowledge and honor difference, and at the same time establish a sense of equity and togetherness? In response, facilitators on the call shared their experiences in helping the participants process this feeling of not belonging and guilt. Shared one facilitator, “… Over time, [participants] realize that it’s just about handling your disability no matter what it is. And as a facilitator, I think it’s good for us to let people know that everybody’s disability is a challenge to them, and it’s not a competition. We’re here to help each other live better with our disability.”

A group of people gathered around a table having a discussion. Another difficult challenge that facilitators discussed is dealing with what you can’t plan for. For example, six or seven weeks into the workshop a participant or facilitator might have a dramatic life change or a crisis that can affect the whole group. How do you support the needs of the individual and the group as a whole? In response, facilitators shared that they will take time in the next workshop to discuss the event, and let participants share their feelings and experiences in the group. “Recognize that this is a learning experience for the group,” said another facilitator. “Life throws us challenges, and when we’re goal-setting we’re going to meet barriers. We might have crises or acute events happen, and we need to work through it.”

“What was particularly amazing about the call was to hear how, through skill and trust, these very challenges can lead to huge successes,” said Lawrence.  “One facilitator told the story of a participant who, during the course of the workshop, experienced a divorce and homelessness, but she made such progress with the support of the group and CIL staff that she was able to get an apartment, a job, and become a successful self-advocate. Another facilitator shared that the workshop is sometimes the first time people recognize that their experience and their voice matters.”

It is clear that Living and Working Well facilitators are immensely skilled, and that opportunities to support one another are very meaningful. “It was wonderful to hear other facilitators’ success stories and some of the challenges they may be having and to be able to share with each other,” said one facilitator.

The next Peer-to-Peer Series call will be on June 28. Topics discussed will include outreach, recruitment, and program sustainability. These calls are free, and open to any Living and Working Well facilitators, though Lawrence does ask that you register. Stay tuned for a registration reminder in early June! Logo: Living and Working Well with a Disability

The Living Well and Working Well with a Disability programs are evidence-based, peer-led health promotion workshops provided by organizations that serve people with disabilities. RTC:Rural provides training and certification for Centers for Independent Living (CILs) and other organizations to conduct the workshops. Both programs are based on the Independent Living philosophy, which recognizes that individual choice and self-determination are essential components of living independently in the community.

Since Living Well began in 1995 and Working Well in 2003, over 1,300 facilitators have been trained in 47 states, in turn serving over 10,000 adults with disabilities. To learn more about the development of Living and Working Well, visit the RTC:Rural website project pages here:

Interested in becoming a Living or Working Well with a Disability facilitator or provider? Visit the Living & Working Well with a Disability website or email livingwell@ruralinstitute.umt.edu for more information, resources, or to be added to the Living and Working Well listserv.