This is my fourth and final blog – written in honour of the Social Care Ideas Factory’s (SCIF) event – We Chose to Climb. This event has been one of the most interesting and positive events that I have ever had the honour of being involved in: great people, great talks and great conversations.

The event was, I think, an effort to bring together many threads of thought and action – and to bring together many different groups. I cannot do justice to the full wonderful human complexity of it all in this short blog; but I did get a feeling that, at last, we might be on the cusp of achieving two important marriages – marriages that have at times seemed so unlikely and yet marriages that would be so natural.

The first potential marriage is between the ideal of independent living and the ideal of person-centred support. These are not quite the same things, and they certainly have rather different histories; but there is, at their heart, such a commonality of purpose, that a marriage could be possible.

Independent living is a philosophy of being and action that has been developed by people with disabilities (for audiences outside the UK) or disabled people (for the UK audience).

[The hazards of forming this previous sentence give some indication of how difficult it is to write about any of these matters in a way that won’t upset someone, but I think it’s important that we remember that these ideas do exist in a global context – particularly as people with disabilities have worked very hard at ensuring that independent living is linked closely to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).]

People with disabilities have been advocating for independent living for about 50 years – this is not an insignificant period of time.

There are some subtle differences of definition that can occur. Independent living is certainly very closely aligned to the idea of rights. As such it is an assertion that we have socio-economic rights (an idea that the current UK Government seems to have abandoned, but which is fundamental to the UN Charter on Human Rights). But it is also an assertion that these rights have to be sensitive to the many forms of discrimination or disadvantage that occur for people with disabilities. Perhaps most importantly, it is a challenge to the welfare system, that was developed in the era of Human Rights, after World War II, that these rights must be designed in ways which respect individual choices about lifestyle, relationships and identity.

Practically, independent living was the philosophy used, by many people with disabilities, to insist that they should not have to suffer institutional living, just because the welfare state had now absorbed institutional ‘care’ services.

The philosophy of independent living is also closely, sometimes perhaps too closely, identified with all sorts of positive service developments: personal assistance, accessible buildings and transport, direct payments or individual funding. These developments have all been very good, but one danger is that we confuse the philosophy of independent living with a particular mode of living – say, living in your own accessible flat, using direct payments and employing personal assistants. Independent living, in its true sense, means living as you wish, in the way that makes most sense to you, to your relationships, to your community and to your values – it is certainly not a prescribed lifestyle.

The concept of person-centred support is not the same as independent living; its roots are more diverse, and it is rarely treated as an explicit political goal in the same way as independent living has been. The term has taken root in counselling, in support for people with intellectual disabilities and in the world of dementia. As this suggests, it is an approach that seems helpful for people who might be disadvantaged because they have difficulty expressing themselves, making choices or find the right lifestyle for themselves. In practice, whether it is through planning, therapy, conversation or action, it is an effort to respect the identity of a person who might otherwise be ignored and erased from proper consideration.

Now I must be careful here – when I say that these two concepts might marry I do NOT mean that these concepts are the same or that they might be merged into one concept. Anyone who thinks that has not been married or has not paid attention to what a marriage is. A marriage is (or should) be a respectful union of two equals. Marriage involves, negotiation, love, mutual support and joint effort – for a common good. What I mean by marriage is that these two ideas might be used to complement one another and to develop a better understanding of common problems and shared solutions.

However, it is quite natural for many people with disabilities to be suspicious of person-centred support; for it may appear to be yet another ‘trick’ of the professional establishment to prod, poke and interfere with their lives. Accepting person-centred support might appear to be a false and unnecessary admission of weakness: Don’t give me person-centredness, give me control!

Yet the greatest danger of completely rejecting person-centred support is that it can narrow the world of disability considerably. Given natural human diversity and all the inevitable frailty of the human condition – all of us need assistance and those most like to face the barriers of disability are those who need assistance with communication or decision-making, those who are locked in anger, fear or sadness and those who suffering from illness or chronic health conditions. If our idea of disability is dominated only by the image of the wheelchair then the world of disability has been radically reduced.

At the heart of person-centred support is the bold assertion that everyone has value, everyone’s life is meaningful, everyone has something to contribute. This assertion is part philosophy – an ethical commitment to the equal value of all human beings – and part methodology – start by assuming value and you will find it.

So, my claim is, independent living needs person-centred support  because, without it, there is a grave danger that too many people with disabilities will be exiled to a place where they are deemed too disabled to be disabled. This is not right and it not helpful.

I also think that we must be careful not to rely too heavily upon our rights. Rights exist because duties exist – and human history tells us that, far too often, societies can quickly become blind to their duties and responsibilities. An awareness of right and duties does not flourish unless we are also aware of ourselves as interdependent beings, with innate value, and with multiple capacities to contribute – including the contribution to community that we make when we need assistance.

But person-centred support also needs independent living. There is a grave danger that person-centred support – which does just lack the same authentic roots as independent living – will morph into another professionalised approach, and will lose its way. We’ve certainly seen signs of this in England, where the institutionalisation of “person centred plans” as the new “care plans” promised so much, but has delivered so little. Person-centred support can open up new possibilities and offers the means to nurture mutual respect; but it is no replacement for robust rights, collective political action and practical peer support.

So, we can use both ideas, they are not the same, but they each offer something valuable and distinct.

There is a second marriage that would be useful, and that is the marriage of people and professionals. Again I do not mean to abandon the obvious differences that might exist between many millions of people on either side of that line (and the very many who stand with one foot on either side of that line). Self-identification as a person with a disability or in whatever group is useful, remains an essential first step toward claiming our rights. However, there are several reasons why a marriage between such diverse groups, might be advantageous.

First, there is the obvious political issue; for there is currently no assurance that there will be any professional services, of funding for personal assistance or for personal budgets. In England ‘adult social care’ has been cut by 30% in just four years – there is little point debating the niceties of the organisation of ‘adult social care’ or ‘personalisation’ when the whole edifice is crumbling around us.

Second, there is the call from many – both people and professionals – to drop many of the professional barriers, bureaucratic systems and undue regulations that make it more difficult for everyone to lead the best lives they can. These intrusive and ineffective controls have grown progressively over the years as trust between the front-line, management and politicians has declined.

The welfare state has become bureaucratic welfare. This situation will only be reversed when people with disabilities, families and professionals – together – start to insist upon and demonstrate the value of low-bureaucracy solutions.

Third, there is the fact that the capacity to collaborate collectively, across the professional boundary, will unleash some of the greatest innovations, support and community change. I see this in all of the best social innovations today – they are all the combination of a little money, a few employees, and a great release of creative action – rooted in community action.

The challenges of these marriages – of ideas and of people – are tremendous. They mean overcoming decades of mutual suspicion and misunderstanding. It means being able to think about problems from multiple perspectives. It means including others who might seem ‘too different’ to be included. But the risk of not achieving such a marriage is even greater.

Today, at the end of the conference, SCIF launched their next collaborative project – the Sherpas Union. This project will attempt to build an international movement of all those endeavouring to improve lives, for themselves, and for others. Perhaps it could be one means to promote the courtship between these different groups and these different ideas. It’s too early to predict, but I for one will try to do all I can to help out, and I have already applied to join.