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Thinking about PATH

PATH is a team-facilitated graphic planning process that was developed by Marsha Forest, Jack Pearpoint and John O'Brien (visit Inclusion Press for the PATH workbook).  PATH combines the best elements of a number of vision-building and future planning tools, adds its own genius, and is one of the most useful tools for listening, planning and community-building we've ever encountered.

Faye and I learned PATH (the acronym stands for 'Planning Alternative Futures with Hope') from Marsha and Jack over 15 years ago.  They taught us by facilitating our own personal PATHs and explaining the thinking that was at the heart of each step.  We were surprised, delighted and inspired by the process, and began using it in our work, eventually including it at the core of a workshop we conduct on creative facilitation and community-building.

The Inclusion Press workbook is the 'authorized source', but we thought we might add something about our own experiences and observations...

First, it's helpful to remember that PATH isn't a 'disability' tool.  It's a great generic process that can be used to define direction in ones own life, design a building, develop an organization, organize a community.

PATH begins with the Dream.  Your vision. Asking what is it that you hope for, yearn for?  What is the dream you have for your life?  What gift to you want to be bringing to the world?  What gives your life direction and meaning?  What's at the center?  If there were no barriers, how would you be living?

This is in the realm of 'direction' - there are no limits.  It has to do with our heartfelt yearnings for connection, meaning, relationships, contribution.  When we're doing a PATH with a child, or with someone who has great difficulty expressing himself, we invite the people who care deeply about that person to add their vision, their dreams for a good life.  We always check in with the person at the center to make sure that this expression matches their dream, but we also recognize that good friends carry dreams for each other as well.

When we say 'no limits', we understand that inside every dream there is an important indicator of direction.  If someone who might have great learning challenges says that they want to be a doctor, we put that on the PATH, and then ask what are the things that a doctor does that are so important? "Well, she helps people" (we put that on the PATH).  "She comforts people when they are feeling bad" (we put that on the PATH).  "She is respected and admired" (we put that on the PATH).  Is it likely that Sarah will become a doctor?  Maybe not (or even probably not).  Is it possible that she can move in a direction that allows her to help people, comfort people, and be admired and respected? Absolutely.

The next step (the Goal) is a chance to develop a good sense of what is achievable in a given amount of time.  Positive, possible movement towards the dream.  We ask the person what their life would be like if they were doing effective work in the direction of their dream for 'a while' (long enough to make some significant progress), perhaps a couple of years (they choose the time-frame).  We encourage the person to imagine this as if it had already happened. 

Sarah says, "Well, in two years I'm volunteering at the hospital. And I'm taking a class at the community college."  Great, Sarah, how did that happen?  "Well, my mom knows the lady who helps people become Candy Stripers, and we went to her office and met her ..."  At this point, Mom pipes up:  "She's right.  When we told Cheryl about Sarah's gift for listening to older people, she knew exactly how she could fit in". 

Now Sarah is getting a sense of what she might be able to do in a year or so, and also how it fits with her desire to help and comfort (one element in the dream of being a doctor).  When she looks 'backwards' for the answer to "how did that happen?", she's inventing a plan for making the connection.  By this time, Mom is also inventing, and seeing how she can be part of making this all happen.  Now we know something about who else needs to be enrolled (Cheryl, the Candy Striper coordinator), and some of the first steps (call Cheryl, make a date...).

Our experience has been that if enough of the right people are present at the PATH (Sarah's brother, the pastor from their church, their next-door neighbour, etc.), they all begin to contribute ideas, solutions, connections, action steps.  More importantly, they all begin to see their part in the picture.  The reason we like PATH so much is that it's partly a 'planning' tool, but also a great tool for community-building, team-building, and commitment-building [since we wrote this article, we developed this idea into a chapter in Implementing Person-Centered Planning: Voices of Experience].

A few months ago, we heard about a PATH that one of our students was facilitating for a young man, involving his mother and a couple of older sisters.  At the end of the day, one of the sisters said, "Mom, now I know what I can do to help Tom.  Before this, all I could see was you banging your head against a brick wall, and I just couldn't see myself joining you in that.  But now I see what I can do".

Once the 'positive possible future' (the Goal) is developed, we do a quick check-in about what's happening in the present (the Now).  What are the feelings, challenges, resources, obstacles, commitments ... the current state of affairs?  The pathfinders begin to develop a clearer sense of the work that has to be done in order to move effectively towards the goal.

In order to fill the gap between 'Now' and what people sense can actually be accomplished in a year or so, we can begin to identify:


who we need to enroll (remember Cheryl?),


what we need to do to get stronger (the skills and practices that will help us stay energetic, focused, and on track),


helpful general strategies (whenever we have a chance, we'll share the PATH with other people in Sarah's life, and ask them if they have any ideas about how some of these things might happen),


sometimes we work on some 'time-lines' (another way of depicting the story ... if it's going to look like this in two years, what would it have to look like in a year? six months? next month?),


and we always end with First Steps -- very concrete, small-potatoes steps that can be taken in the next few days (Mom says, "I'll call Cheryl tomorrow."  Sarah says, "I'll walk to the college and get the calendar ... on Thursday."  Her brother says, "I'll buy a typing tutor program when I go downtown next week.").

We finish with a check-in ... "How do you feel?"  Excited.  Focused.  A bit scared (that's okay, too).  Glad.

One thing that can help is remembering that PATH isn't an Individual Education Plan (although you can derive an IEP from a PATH ... "What can the school do to help Sarah along her path?").  It isn't a 'Program Plan' (although you can derive a program plan from a PATH ... "What can our agency do that will help Sarah and her family on this journey?").  It's Sara's PATH.

Faye and I have had fifteen years of experience with this approach to planning.  We've learned how to use and adapt PATH in situations that are very conflicted, confusing, challenging.  We've facilitated PATHs for projects, agencies, county boards, state-wide programs, websites, people in business.  On a personal level, we invite friends to help us do our own PATH every couple of years.  The one iron-clad ground rule is that you never facilitate someone else's PATH until you've had your own done.

We teach PATH and other facilitation tools in workshops (lots of practice, and everybody gets their own PATH done).  Sometimes, workshop sponsors invite families to come with their personal support circles. This keeps everything grounded and strengthens parent / professional / community relationships. Sometimes kids come with their school teams, parents, siblings, and friends. Kids get their PATHs done and parents and professionals learn a lot about each other.

The best workshops are diverse, including family members, people with disabilities, professionals, and especially 'civilians': grandmothers, architects, church leaders, environmentalists, artists, educators, business people, people involved in community foundations, media people, legislators, high school students, people involved in sports, etc. The message is, "these are tools for change, for discovery, for community-building and commitment-building" - not, "these are tools for disability, and we want to recruit you into our disability scene".

Men and women with disabilities and their community allies make great learning / practice teams. Our basic premise is that everyone learns, everyone practices, everyone takes their turn in the graphic and facilitation roles. In practice this means that some teams need to create ways of assisting each other, sometimes developing two-person graphic teams or two-person process facilitation teams. Many times, people discover that their friends 'with disabilities' reflect great understanding, insight, strategic thinking and artistry, and the facilitation pattern turn out to be a powerful tool for expression and leadership in the realm of self-advocacy.

2003 David and Faye Wetherow - CommunityWorks

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