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Peer counseling can change everything

June 6, 2009
By LAUREN LEFEBVRE, Tri-Lakes Center for Independence

I bet you didn't know that not just any organization can be called an "independent living center." People tend to confuse us with organizations that provide housing. I can see that mistake happening because living can mean housing, but in our case "living" means really living, not just a roof over your head. In order to be an independent living center, you must provide four core services: peer counseling; independent living skills training, systems advocacy; and information and referral.

Soon, there will be an additional core service added, which will be transition to community based living. I'll write about that one some other time. Today, let's just take on peer counseling.

Peer counseling

One of the four basic tenets that comprise independent living philosophy is the idea of peer counseling. One must not mistake this idea of "counseling" as the sort that you would get from a guidance counselor, a marriage counselor, a psychotherapist, or any such sort of clinician. This is an idea that stands outside of the medical model.

In order to understand peer counseling fully, one should look at it in the context of the "independent living" model. This model is a concept or an expression of people's desires to be in control of their own lives. This model can be understood more fully when compared to the "rehabilitation model." The rehabilitation model, to put things very simply, states that if changes or adjustments are to be made they happen within the consumer. The consumer is expected to internalize, to see his/her weakness and shortcomings, make changes within him/herself, and most of all learn to be accepting of his/her disabilities. The counselor working within the independent living model would look at the problems from outside the consumer, meaning that he or she looks at the environment and helping the client determine what in the environment needs to be changed in order for the client to function more fully.

When you are part of the peer counseling experience you realize how important it is for a person with a disability to have the experience of meeting and talking with another person with a disability. The counselor is a person with a disability who has realized the uniqueness of their own experiences and how valuable it was to them to share those experiences. This is what peer counseling is all about. The peer counselor is that individual who has attained disability related experiences, knowledge, and coping skills, to assist others with their disability related experiences.

The goal of peer counseling is directed toward enabling the individual to meet personal needs in order to more fully function and take control of his life, in his home, community and employment.

Peer counseling has many advantages to the consumer, the counselor and the community. The consumer is given the opportunity to model after someone whom s/he has reached out to and with whom they share some common experiential base with. He or she is given the opportunity to develop coping skills that presumably work because they work with the peer counselor he or she is relating to. He or she can learn to advocate on their own behalf. His or her feelings of self-worth can be enhanced because they have a counselor who truly understands. The peer counselor gains in feelings of self worth for he or she has the opportunity to share a valuable and worthwhile experience. This in turn can motivate the counselor to reach out to others and to perfect his/her skills. For many peer counselors, this position can be a vehicle for career development. The community, of course, is helped to form a positive image of the disabled. More important, the service to persons with disabilities is improved, allowing these persons to take up a more meaningful role in the community. The development of peer counselors would appear to be the grassroots answer to a growing technology, allowing people to grow closer together rather than apart.

It should be pointed out that not all individuals can be peer counselors. The good counselor is a person who can show empathy toward other people's problems, be able to listen, communicate, be direct, sincere, be able to share personal experiences, be trusting, and have knowledge and skill that would be helpful. The counselor should have a broad range of good personal characteristics.

It is important for the peer counselor to know the independent living philosophy and policies of the place he or she is working. It is highly important that the counselor know his or her abilities and limitations. It is important to know when and when not to act. This issue of confidentiality is important. The counselor must know the difference between being a support person and being a 'protector' or 'rescuer'.

Peer counseling can also be very beneficial to friends, spouses, co-workers, employers or family members of someone with a disability. More often than not a person with a disability sees their situation as unique. Family members, friends, etc., also see their situation as unique. Many carry a tremendous amount of guilt.

So come in, talk to a peer counselor. If there's one thing TLCIL's staff have, it's the gift (or curse) of boldfaced honesty! No one is punished for telling our counselor's the truth. How do you work on something if it isn't laid on the table? Same thing goes for the person (adult or child) with a disability. Being truthful and really getting down to the nitty gritty is the only way to start on the road to success.

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