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Winter 2006 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Jacob's Circle of Friends

By Nancy Hartshorne, Parent of Jacob and former Director of the Michigan Deafblind Project

Key Words: Family, blind, visually impaired, deafblind, building relationships

Abstract: One parent shares how her son's Circle of Friends has worked for them in creating community that not only supports Jacob, who is deafblind in having a rich and fulfilling life but has had reciprocal impact on those within his circle.

Editor's Note: Nancy Hartshorne, PhD, is a school psychologist and consultant. Nancy previously directed a federally funded grant to serve children and youth who are deafblind in the state of Michigan. She has chaired the Professional Advisory Board for the CHARGE Syndrome Foundation, Inc. She is coauthor of numerous book chapters and journal articles pertaining to development in children with CHARGE syndrome and inclusion strategies and tools. She is an advocate for quality education in the least restrictive environment for her son as well as for all children.

A Circle of Friends is a circle of support, which forms around a person with a disability. It is meant to be a support to the person's inclusion into the school, community, and workplace, and thus, is considered an "inclusion tool". The person with the disability invites who he or she wishes to be involved in the circle, based upon who they feel supports them in their lives. For a person with limited communication skills, those closest to the person (parents, for example) would decide who would be invited. Circles of Friends often start by using a person-centered-planning process, MAPS, Personal Futures Planning, or PATH. Then the action plan is carried out by the members of the circle.

Circles of friends may or may not involve professionals, depending upon whether the person feels these folks are part of her/his support network. This person included her developmental disabilities caseworkers in her circle. Community Mental Health, the agency responsible for services to the DD population in Michigan, also supplied the circle facilitators. The MAPS process is facilitated by two people: a verbal facilitator and a graphic facilitator who records the ideas of the others through the use of words and imaginative graphics depicting the ideas so that everyone can access them.

Jacob's (my son's) circle of friends includes his school friends, for the most part, although the deaf-blind consultant attends and helps facilitate (she has provided deafblind simulations, helped the kids come up with name signs for Jacob, etc.) and the general education teacher has been attending this year.

Jacob's circle has about 18 student members, about half boys/half girls. They have identified themselves over the years as the kids who really seem to connect with and care about Jacob in his inclusive setting (he is in sixth grade, this year). Although Jacob doesn't give these kids much social feedback, they really care about him, and have hung in there for a while. Most of them are charter members, since first grade. Each meeting we spend some time planning, snacking, interacting, and having fun. Until now, the circle has focused on social interaction with Jacob. This year we are focusing more on transition to the middle school than anything (there is only one middle school in town.) The kids have decided to go to all of the sixth grades in the city (six schools) to speak about Jacob and his circle of friends. Then when Jacob starts middle school inclusion, there will be (hopefully) much less "pointing at the freak" than there would be otherwise, because of understanding having been facilitated. Activities we have undertaken in the past couple of years have included the following:

The circle is facilitated each year by a volunteer special education student teacher from our university. This has worked out great, as I still have input, but much less work. She brings the snacks, supplies, etc., and I just reimburse her. Ideally, the circle would be facilitated during school by a teacher, and could include the whole class that Jacob is in. This is a different model, but would lend itself to more ideas being generated for inclusion in school lessons.

The circle evolves in membership, and will continue to. Some drop out, but most stay the same. As they move away to college, etc., we hope more people will identify themselves as they get to know Jacob. We hope the circle continues throughout his life span, although this is difficult, as kids get busier with sports, adults get busy with studies, jobs, families. It will change, but hopefully, will always be there to fall back on in a time of crisis, even if through an email listserv!! My ultimate goal is that Jacob will have a circle of support in place to take over decision making for him in case something happens to Tim and me. He would have a guardian, of course, but also a "steering committee", with his best interests, dreams, and wishes at heart! One little girl was running for student council president, and on her poster, she wrote: "Activities I am involved in: 1. Jacob's Circle of Friends, 2. Junior Choir, 3. Girl Scouts" (In that order --- I was thrilled by this!!!)

This year, our focus is fund-raising. The kids (hopefully about 8 of them) are going to try to raise enough money to support their attending the CHARGE conference. I have invited them to help me present on Circles of Friends. I have had them do this in several forums before, and they do a GREAT job! I hope they can raise enough funds, because I really want all of you to meet these great kids. And their parents always extol the virtues of the circle, how valuable it has been to their character building, sensitivities to differences, compassion, and ability to think and plan for things. It also becomes a general circle of social support to all of them, less and less for Jacob, and more and more for the group as a whole—they ALL support each other!

In a recent video interview, one charter circle member was asked why she thought the circle was important. I kind of held my breath, wondering what she would say. She blew me away. She said, "The circle is important because we help make sure that Jacob participates and is included in everything. That's important, because if he wasn't included in everything, he'd just be with teachers all day, and who would want to just be with teachers all day? That's no fun!" I loved that response, because it shows that she sees Jacob as a KID, first!

Lastly, these kids are the kids who will grow up to be leaders, workers, legislators, educators, etc. in our and other communities. They will use this experience to further the lives of people with disabilities in whatever career they pursue. They will grow up to be Jacob's employers, support persons, and friends to others with disabilities.

And Jacob will have a group of people committed to ensuring he has a rich life. Not just an integrated life, not just a life free of pain, abuse, neglect, segregation, but an "enviable" life.

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Last Revision: September 1, 2010