Microboards can empower adults with disabilities
By Pat Richard
Some people with disabilities are charting their own course in life with the help of a tiny, non-profit corporation that pays for and manages their support services. Microboards are family members, friends or even neighbors. They have charters and bylaws, hold regular meetings to develop and implement person-centered plans and are eligible for “agency-level” funding.
The microboard framework was conceived in the mid-1980s by David and Faye Wetherow in Manitoba, Canada so that funds could be allocated for specific needs of the person of focus, rather than relying on restrictive traditional funding strategies. The concept has gained a stronghold in British Columbia, where approximately 450 microboards are operating. Microboards in BC enjoy the benefit of a strong microboard association: the Vela Microboard Association facilitates the development of microboards and provides ongoing support to microboards for people with disabilities living in the province.
In the U.S., Tennessee is at the forefront of microboard implementation. As in British Columbia, the Tennessee Microboards Association is engaged in education and support for fledgling enterprises. Since 2002, it has helped to create more than 100 microboards that serve as sustainable, formalized circles of support for people with disabilities . Other states pursuing the microboard option include Illinois, Missouri, Texas, Virginia, Georgia and Pennsylvania.
Closer to home, the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability is conducting a four-year project to establish 36 pilot microboards for transitioning youth. The project will evaluate the transition process and outcomes for participants with microboards and a comparison group of 36 individuals involved in a more traditional transition process. In Massachusetts, the Wetherows are consulting on the development of microboards there.
In Rhode Island, the concept of microboards is just beginning to take root. Advocacy groups, agencies and professionals in the field of developmental disabilities are educating themselves and reaching out to policymakers in an effort to pave the way for forming microboards in the state.
Adriana Thomas, a House policy analyst, believes that it’s a good time to make a case for the formation of microboards in Rhode Island. “The state is in transition, and I think that they’re receptive to new ideas. If the various stakeholders can effectively communicate the benefits of microboards, that would be helpful.”
On the other hand, Ms. Thomas pointed out that the recently completed final draft of the Application for the Rhode Island Consumer Choice Global Compact, a medicaid reform initiative, might cloud the issue of funding for microboards. She suggested that forming a state microboards association could become an invaluable tool for bringing microboards to the state.
The foundation of microboards is the person-centered planning process. People with a personal connection to the people with disabilities – family, friends, neighbors, employers, clergy, etc. – help the individual to form a life plan based on the totality of that person, rather than simply focusing on their disability. With direct input from the person of focus, the plan includes their likes and dislikes, dreams and ambitions, fears and concerns. It is the individual who defines what “a good life” means. The purpose of person-centered planning is not to indulge in fantasy. In reality, most people’s desires are relatively modest. The purpose of person-centered planning is to draw an accurate profile of the individual, set priorities for their support based on that profile, and find ways to make their goals accessible.
It is during person-centered planning that the microboard framework should be considered. Microboards are not a panacea that works for all persons and situations. While it is an elegant solution to some of the challenges associated with self-directed support, creating and maintaining a microboard is not an easy process. The decision to create a microboard must be weighed carefully, with the primary focus always being a regard for the individual’s safety, comfort, and human dignity.
Once the decision is made to create a microboard, recruitment of board members begins. The importance of finding the best people to serve on the board cannot be overstated. It is usually presumed that the person for whom the microboard is being formed will have an active, and if possible, primary role on the board. Other board members must have a caring, personal relationship with that person, and a desire to commit their time and efforts on a long-term basis toward helping them realize their goals. If that desire is present, board members can acquire the necessary skills to make them good board members. That said, a familiarity with non-profits, experience with funding and support systems for the people with disabilities, good business sense, knowledge of the community, a “can do” attitude and a creative approach to problem solving are helpful qualities in a board member.
Setting up the administrative underpinnings of a non-profit corporation is a detail-oriented task. Each state has specific procedures that require strict adherence. A non-profit needs a charter that clearly states its mission, and bylaws for its administration. Often, a professional facilitator can be helpful in creating a viable entity.
With its organizational framework in place, the microboard then sets about tackling the issues for which it was created. Attention must be given to finding and contracting with the appropriate funding mechanisms. The microboard must formulate sound fiscal practices to reassure funders that money will be properly managed. A realistic budget must be constructed, accounting for all the needs of the person of focus, such as housing, support staff, transportation, health care, recreation… everything that person needs for a rewarding life. A microboard should also consider liability and insurance issues, just as any other non-profit would.
Once funding is secured, attention turns to day-to-day operations. Staff must be hired and schedules put in place. Supervision of daily operations must be instituted, and purchasing procedures established. Operations must be reviewed regularly and adjustments made. Supports must be monitored and evaluated, and policies for correcting shortcomings formulated. All this must be accomplished while maintaining an unwavering attention to the individual’s quality of life and right to self-determination.
If this seems a little overwhelming, keep in mind that a successful microboard can revolutionize the life of a person with a disability. The Tennessee Microboards web site has several narratives describing how microboards have helped individuals realize their dream of self-determination. For example, Bobbie’s Way, Inc. began in 2003. The 30-year-old woman was living in a group home, where she was frequently unhappy and expressing her frustration in an inappropriate way. After going through the PATH (Planning Alternative Tomorrows with Hope) process, and forming her own microboard, Bobbie now lives in her own apartment, has her own full time staff, volunteers at the local ARC, plays bingo, is exploring pet ownership, and learning to do her own shopping. She has discovered her talent for crafts and earns her own money. Her mother proclaims that Bobbie has never been happier.