To “I” Or Not To “I”

Recently I did a short piece thinking about writing in first person for people with profound intellectual disabilities – that is, writing things about people using the word “I” as if the person wrote it themselves. It’s been great to hear the conversation that this has started. I’ll pop up a pdf link later (but if linked it as an image at the end of this post – Thanks to PMLDlink for allowing me to do this, and Polly Samuels aka Donna Williams for her painting “Illussions of Control”).

In one discussion Nell Brown presented two different profiles of her daughter Tess as examples of two different practices. She agreed for me to share them here.

What’s your first impressions from the way these are written? Who do you think would be an appropriate “author” for each? What do you think are the pros and cons of each style? What might be the implications for supporting Tess?

“First person”

My name is Tess. I like to be given the opportunity to make choices for myself, but I also like out-of-nowhere experiences, and will become enthusiastic if handled with excitement and humour. I love music and dance (unless I am having problems with voices). People who work with me can offer to put music on, sometimes just having music on can draw me out. If I am in the mood I can dance around the living room for ages. I love praise and respond well to people who make me feel special and take time out to chat to me. I love enthusiasm. I love swimming, drama, friends and family. I love social occasions. I have a lot of hours to fill so this can be flexible f you are studying or working part time elsewhere. Come and meet me and we can see if we suit each other!

I am 30, can be very cute and have an intellectual disability and schizophrenia. I am not safe on my own. I tend to internalise and that is not a good thing. I am looking for someone to work with me who loves doing interesting things. I need help with my speech so studying speech therapy, physio therapy OT etc is an advantage. I am looking for someone who can work alongside my speech therapist in order to support me.

I would like someone willing to help me with my garden, cook with me and help me develop a range of skills. I love going out for massage but need a support person. Sometimes I am stair phobic depending on my medications working properly. I am on a ‘get fit’ regime, so you must be willing to be physically active – nice long walks (I am not very fast). Working with me on my ipad, taking photos of my day and making storybooks will be fun! I love wacky humour, I love adventure, love musicals and if you like these things, I am looking someone just like you! You need to be strong and resist the urge to buy me sugary or fatty things because I love healthy alternatives too and need your guidance!

Third Person
About Tess…. My daughters name is Tess. She likes to be given the opportunity to make choices for herself, but also likes out-of-nowhere experiences, and will become enthusiastic if handled with excitement and humour. Tess loves music and dance (unless she is having problems with voices). People who work with Tess can offer to put music on, sometimes just having music on can draw her out. If she is in the mood she can dance around the living room for ages. Tess loves praise and responds well to people who make me feel special and take time out to chat to her. Tess loves enthusiasm. Tess loves swimming, drama, friends and family. She loves social occasions. Tess has a lot of hours to fill so this can be flexible if you are studying or working part time elsewhere. Come and meet Tess and her family and we can see if we suit each other!

Tess is 30, can be very cute and she has both an intellectual disability and schizophrenia. She is not safe on her own. Tess tends to internalise and that is not a good thing. We are looking for someone to work with Tess who loves doing interesting things. Tess needs help with her speech so studying speech therapy, physio therapy OT etc is an advantage. We are looking for someone who can work alongside Tess’s speech therapist in order to support her.

We would like someone willing to help her in her garden, cook with her and help her to develop a range of skills. Tess loves going out for massage but needs a support person. Sometimes Tess can be stair phobic depending on her medications working properly. We have Tess on a ‘get fit’ regime, so you must be willing to be physically active – nice long walks (Tess is not very fast). We are looking for someone willing to work with Tess on her ipad, taking photos of her day and making storybooks. Tess loves wacky humour, loves adventure, loves musicals and if you like these things, we are looking someone just like you! You need to be strong and resist the urge to buy Tess sugary or fatty things because she can be coerced into quality food, as she loves healthy alternatives too but need your guidance as her personal judgement on food is not always in her own best interest.


Writing about a person with PIMD or “all about me”…

Over the past 12 months I have been involved in several conversations regarding the use of first-person in writing. Writing in first person means using the term “I” to refer to the author, for example “I like folk music”, as opposed to third-person “Sheridan likes folk music”. In writing about people with PIMD, writers may be faced with the dilemma of, do I write in first-person or third?
For people with PIMD it may be clear that the person themselves has not “written” the document, however the writer may choose to write the document as if the person was saying it themselves. There is a belief that writing in this way may get the reader to “listen” more to the document and see the person as a person with views and perspectives. This practice is very common in adult disability services. There are many reasons, however, to be extremely cautious about using first-person.
Does “pretending” that the person wrote information further disempower the person? What if what has been written is not in fact true (e.g. “I hate folk music”)? What if what is written about the person may be encouraging responses which deny the person’s rights (e.g. “When I suck my finger, hold my hand down in my lap”)?
Issues of first-person use have been explored by Michael Smull and others involved in person centred planning (thanks to everyone on www.elpnet.net that helped me to navigate this information). Smull and Sanderson wrote that “one of the abuses of person centered planning that can be found with distressing frequency is to change traditional plans from third person to first person and call the result a person centered plan” (see http://www.virtualward.org.uk/silo/files/think-before-you-planpdf.pdf). Smull discourages the use of first-person language unless the person has clearly been involved in what has been written – this means that they have said it using symbolic forms and they have confirmed it on review of the document (he also recommends testing out the ongoing truth of the statement). If first-person is used because the person has expressed it, he recommends that facilitators are very mindful that they haven’t used leading questions to generate the quotes. He suggests that if the writer and all people who know the person are not 100% sure that this is something that the person would say if they could, then using third person is recommended.
I think this is very sound approach. What do you think and how does this reflect practice in your organisation?