In June 2011 IRIS partnered with the Paradigm Initiative to provide opportunities for disabled people and their families to learn more about Circles of Support and to build a community of practice of support circle facilitators.

Te Pou’s consumer leadership development grant supported the work and the Paradigm Initiative led the learning events and workshops.

What is a Circle of Support?

A Circle of Support is a group of people who are intentionally invited to come together in friendship and support of a person with a disability, for the purposes of protecting their interests into the future. It’s about making a positive change, sharing ideas with allies, having people who care and are willing to watch over a vulnerable family member.

A Circle of Support can be called anything, for example champions, coffee circle, social circle or intentional network. What is important is that there is a purpose for bringing people together who are unpaid and who care about and have the best interests of the disabled person at the core.

What was involved?

Four ‘community conversations’ and a one-day workshop event were held throughout late 2011 and early 2012. Bridget Sneddon of the Paradigm Initiative said these events, attended by more than 65 parents and caregivers of disabled family members, built awareness around Circles of Support , how they are created and how they work for the individuals and families. 

They confirmed the natural authority of the disabled person and their family and how they can take control of the decisions that affect them and define what will make a good life. They also explored how the circle will lead to the individual being able to develop and strengthen their unique gifts and talents to become a contributing member of the community.

Learning about the Paradigm Initiative and Circles of Support has been really inspiring. I am a parent of an intellectually disabled and vision impaired young man who has significant support needs. I am a single parent and often feel that I am doing this (supporting my son) all on my own, both practically and in an emotional context. I really like the idea of having a Circle of Support around my son for now and also for his future - people who will look out for his interests and can support him to speak up. 

For me, I also like the idea of having a circle of support around me while I am negotiating my way through the disability system to support my son as he moves from the schooling system into adult life. Working with 'the system' is not easy. I have been doing it for nearly 21 years and there are so many entrenched attitudes and beliefs from professionals to overcome. Having the opportunity of a circle of support to walk alongside me and my son gives me some hope.”  Denise G.

Nathan’s Circle of Friends

Nathan’s Mum attended a one-day event and as a result started to actively work through the various steps to initiate and develop a Circle of Friends for Nathan. Through what she had heard she was able to translate how the concept of a Circle of Friends could really make the difference for her son and that friendships and relationships made now could have the potential to be there in the future.

Time spent planning was really critical part of the process and the Circle of Friends for Nathan was a direct result of this. When you have a child with a disability it is so easy to become isolated without even realising what is happening. Unlike children without a disability it is very difficult to establish networks around our children so putting in a circle helps build the social network around us and our children.

The most important learning I made was hearing the story of the mother as she talked about how her Circle of Support changed her life giving her more confidence, she was more hopeful when thinking about the future and she truly believed that her children could do well”.  Rachel H, Nathan’s mum.

Nathan's Circle of Support.

Pictured above: Nathan's Circle of Friends.

Ashley’s Angels

Ashley’s Angels is the name chosen by Ashley for her Circle of Support. Ashley is 18 years old, she has a strong vibrant personality and an intellectual disability; she lives at home with her mum and sister.   

Ashley’s Mum gave considerable thought to the purpose of this Circle of Support and decided that it was “to have other people help with the thinking and planning”. She didn’t need hands on support but people to sit alongside her and Ashley and make sure that Ashley’s voice was heard. Getting clear with the purpose was important as circle members needed to be clear why it is that they have been invited to come together.

Over the first few meetings Ashley and her Mum decided who they would invite into the circle. Although the people invited didn’t all know each other it wasn’t long before that changed and the contributions from everyone soon started happening. Bringing the Circle of Support together on a regular basis was seen as an important aspect of establishing the relationships within the circle. 

The stress has completely gone, it feels so liberating having Ashley’s Angels.”  Mum

Ashley and her angels.

Pictured above: Ashley and her angels.

Building a community of support circle facilitators

As part of the consumer leadership development project, the Paradigm Initiative recognised the importance of building a community of skilled facilitators who could help establish and maintain Circles of Support. Three training events were held for parents and other carers who felt they could share their skills and take on the facilitator role to make Circles of Support available to more people.

Facilitators are critical to the success of establishing and sustaining Circles of Support as they introduce the “what’s possible?” thinking to the family and the individual. Families who have established Circles of Support report that the facilitator is the key to building momentum by doing the asking, remaining focused on the individual and removing the deep emotional risk of seeking help.

The facilitator’s role is to ensure that the individual and their family move through the establishment and then the ongoing circle activity with the intention of encouraging a member of the circle to take on the facilitation activity when ready.

This includes:

  • implementation of support circles
  • building and ongoing maintenance of support circles
  • planning and organisation.

Sarah is a Circle of Support facilitator working with a young man who recently left home, the following is Sarah’s story about setting up the Young Champions Circle after her participation in facilitators training event.

Sarah's story...

In terms of creating a new age-related circle of friends there are a few basic considerations to take into account. As Alex and his peers have gotten older their interests have changed and, as with most people in their 20s, they may have grown apart. There needs to be opportunity for Alex to meet with new people in his age group who share his interests and who don’t give in to this ‘I’m too busy’ society. In other words, people who will let someone like Alex into their fast-paced lifestyle.

Time was spent with Alex in talking about his new Circle of Support, which he decided to call his Young Champs! He named six people and I explored with him why he wanted these people to be his Young Champs as I wanted the invitation to include the qualities Alex sees in these friends and how they will help to develop his social skills and independence.

Alex found it hard to put into words what these people meant to him so I gave him a variety of qualities to choose from and he picked the words that best described his prospective Young Champs: funny, helpful, friendly, honest, supportive, a good problem-solver and smart.

Alex has gained enormously from having a group of young people who have come together on a regular basis.

Sarah with Alex's young champs.

Pictured above: Sarah with Alex's young champs.