A Symposium given by John O’Brien for Rehabcare and the Centre for Disability Studies, National University of Ireland, Dublin.


John O’Brien gave a group of over 150 delegates from all over Ireland a day to remember about person-centred planning. His engaging style and thought-provoking up-front manner helped promote the powerful process of person-Centred planning in this country. John referred to specific references, including A little book about person-centred planning (1998), Implementing person-centred planning: Voices of experience (2002), and websites such as and, as well as the Centre on Human Policy (free downloadable resources at http://thechp.soe.web. He kept the message straightforward: it’s about the person. He also asked us to think about the difference between action questions and insight questions. An example of action questions would be ‘What are we going to do about this situation?’, ‘What do you think we should do about this situation?’ Insight questions are ‘What is it we don’t yet understand about this situation?’, ‘What is it that we are really feeling in this situation?’, ‘What is hard to discuss in this situation?’ and ‘What is it we are not seeing about this situation?’

As an empowerment speaker, John O’Brien is clearly a protagonist of establishing the human rights framework. He talked about the basic process of person-centred planning in terms of::

  • Gathering the people who know and care.
  • Facilitating listening deeply to conversations about ways life could be better.
  • Making a vivid statement about the future that people are proud to stand behind.
  • The importance of making and keeping agreements about action.

He also talked a lot about what makes situations work, i.e. that people are more likely to take positive action when they:

  • Believe that what they do makes a difference.
  • Learn by seeing others choose, work towards and achieve positive change.
  • Can organise and work with others to achieve what they cannot do alone.
  • Can get help when they need it and that help does not take them over-

John clearly differentiated between exclusion and inclusion; exclusion being a process whereby people and things are kept out without anyone taking responsibility. It is about ‘us’ and ‘them’, when tangible barriers are taken as given and when people are segregated and prejudice is an integral part of that segregation.

Inclusion is recognised by being part of one’s community and making a positive difference to others. Hallmarks are accommodation, welcome and assistance in places where one’s capacities shine. It is about all of us with our differences.

John differentiated between poor stories and better stories. Some stories enhance life, while others degrade it. It is our responsibility to be careful about the stories we tell, and about the way we define ourselves and other people (Burton Blatt). Hallmarks of a poor story are those with closed endings and edges, those that justify themselves and leave us defeated. They are about the blame mentality versus the enquiring mind and usually involve somebody in power disempowering. Better stories are those that embody a learning circle, are open to revision, encourage us to act together, are characterised by negotiation which endeavours to resolve uncertainties by exploring positive options.

John stated that creative thinking involves the art of discovering what people can contribute to community life, and ways to support and embody this contribution.

Person-centred planning, he warned, should not allow itself to be derailed by:

  • Not enough money
  • Crucial disagreements
  • No sense of a positive future
  • No service capacity

Conversely, being person centred is about learning journeys. John stated that a starting point in person-centred planning is:

  • Making a welcoming place to listen to what a person can tell (in words or otherwise) about what matters to them.
  • Listening deeply to what matters to the person and verifying your understanding.
  • Finding some action you can each agree to take that will make more room for what matters (consider actions that will stretch service agreements a bit).
  • Renewing agreements.

Some of the key points of the day were acknowledging that:

  • The essence of person-centred planning is not to allow the fear of risk to contain people, but to search and build on gifts and capacities.
  • Person-centred planning is not a product to be consumed by people or services, but a change in social structures. It is an art form.
  • Each person needs to make sense of what disability means to them. Labelling an impairment does not tell me what is important to an individual or how they want to live their life.
  • Person-centred planning creates the space for feelings of frustration to surface. It gives an opportunity to ask ‘hard’ questions, allows time for reflection, and questions what is it we are not seeing in this situation. This leads to creativity.
  • Sometimes person-centred planning involves guessing, but you should know when you are guessing. You can improve your capacity to guess by improving your knowledge of the person.

When facilitating person-centred planning, one should remember:

  • We can always listen a little better.
  • We can all find out a little more about each other.
  • Time spent on capacity is better use of time.
  • Gather the people that are important to the person – keep it warm.
  • Try and make something happen!

Remember that as service providers what we know how to do does not always match what people ask for in their sense of their vision for the future.


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