We all need support to participate in our complex lives. Supports that the majority of people need (e.g., friends, schools, car repair mechanics, tax preparation) are often invisible (Snow, 1998). The invisibility comes from how common and frequent the need is among people. Because most of us need a school to learn and a mechanic to fix the car, we do not view these services as support. When people need supports that are not so ordinary (e.g., support to learn how to play, support to eat, support to communicate), they are viewed as different or exceptional. This difference presents an opportunity to explore the nature of support relationships. The basis for any personalized support is the relationship. Yet, in practice, the support relationship remains poorly defined and a relatively unexamined concept.
We focus in this article on defining the role of the supporter in providing personalized assistance to a person with unique support needs. Personalized assistance needs to be responsive to a range of needs, including recognizing and making use of a person's skills, compensating for areas where skills may not develop, and offering the opportunity for entering new realms and learning new skills. Relationships are the basis for providing support. Figure 1 shows a dynamic description of aspects of relationships.
A consensual domain emerges as a result of establishing a relationship. Our unconscious and largely intuitive use of language describes relationships as being “in sync” or “on the same wavelength.” The support relationship is a shared enterprise that is complex, fluid, and negotiated. The goal of support is promoting basic participation, sometimes through change, with appropriate safeguards.
Assumptions Guiding Support
We believe that there are necessary principles and assumptions that must guide supportive relationships. Essentially, these principles and assumptions compose the value statements that we have distilled from our own and others' experiences of mutually successful relationships:
All people communicate. Communication occurs in the context of relationships. Typically, we use intuition and history of interactions to assign meaning to behavior. For some people, communication may be unconventional and hard to interpret. To negotiate meaning within a relationship, it may be necessary to suspend trust in our intuitions and assumptions about meaning (Leary & Hill, 1996).
Progress in development occurs in relationship and through mutual responding based on genuine appreciation and valuing of the other person.
We all have different abilities at different times and in different contexts. True support emerges out of collaboration in finding solutions to challenges and working toward agreed on goals.
The relationship is a covenant. Both partners are committed in kind to the development of the relationship.
The relationship is neither affirmed nor nullified by a partner's performance. The overriding aim is unconditional support of another to grow and participate in an ever-increasing number of richer relationships with others.
The support relationship is not about power or control. Rather, it is a shared enterprise that is complex, fluid, and negotiated, with the goal of promoting participation, sometimes through difficult transitions and change, with appropriate safeguards.
We find it useful to consider support needs within two broad categories that reflect two facets of human circumstances: Times of Stability and Times of Growth, Transition, and Change. These two support-need categories fall under the umbrella of our third category, Safety, both within and outside of the support relationship. We have explored ways to describe supportive relationships by suggesting possible role metaphors to amplify and underscore some of the less tangible and other, more apparent, dimensions of support. The tables below illustrate the dimensions of support and the support roles. Table 1 (Times of Stability) highlights support functions that relate to the day to day, routine activities for which a person may need support. Table 2 (Times of Growth, Transition, and Change) highlights support functions that are necessary because of changes in circumstances, new opportunities, and/or turmoil or crises. Table 3 (Safety) highlights support functions that recognize the possible threats from within or outside of the relationship. The support needs, opportunities, and dangers for these categories become our themes for describing the work of the supporter in terms of role metaphors. Given these support needs, what kind of supporting roles are useful or necessary? Figure 2 provides a list of properties of successful, supportive relationships we have found in our research.
The reader is encouraged to consider, experiment, and, ultimately, exercise supporting roles. This process may help identify a person's support needs, critically assess gaps in support or missed opportunities, consider areas for enrichment, and alert concern for potential dangers and barriers. Not all of the supporting roles will be relevant for a specific person. These support needs and roles are intended for reflection and contemplation rather than being prescriptive. The role of a supporter is created each moment.
Support for Stability
The need for supportive relationships is a common, shared need for all persons, regardless of ability. The kind of support that is needed varies, given different situations and circumstances, for any individual. We cover five support needs that are necessary to support stability. These are provided in Table 1, with descriptors of the supporting roles that one may fill.
Support for Growth, Transition, and Change
In addition, there are times when individuals, or the community and the settings that they participate in, change. During these times of growth, transition, transformation, or crisis, the nature and functions of support need to change as well. Supports at these episodic intervals must have qualities such as being observant, deliberate, mindful, and creative. In Table 2, we have identified five support needs within this category of support and have provided a related list of supporting roles to illustrate this.
Support for Safety
A relationship between two people opens up both parties to certain vulnerabilities. There are inherent risks involved within and outside the support relationship. Vigilance is required to protect the integrity, health, safety, and comfort of the individuals. In Table 3, we have identified three support needs that serve this purpose. We provide descriptors to illustrate these supporting roles.
Several dangerous roles to be avoided are also presented in Table 4 below. These dangerous roles can be insidious and may ultimately sabotage or harm the support relationship beyond repair.
We believe that relationships are the basis for personalizing unique supports for people. We have identified a number of support needs and supporting roles. The supporting-role metaphors we have offered are examples to consider when one needs to fulfill a particular support function. The dangerous roles presented represent those actions or approaches that may sabotage the support relationship. The challenge is to consider, through an open dialogue, which support functions are a best fit for a person's life circumstances.
We thank everyone who helped us to think critically about what it means to be supportive. Specifically, thank you to Beth Gallagher, Ryan Matthews, Judith McGill, Miriam Miller, Anne O'Bryan, Larry O'Bryan, Jodi Robledo, and Judith Snow, who have constructively shaped and challenged our thinking.