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What is the strengths approach?

This is an excerpt from Inclusive Leisure With HKPropel Access by Mary Ann Devine & Lynn Anderson.

By Lynn Anderson

Human beings have an inherent bias to use a negative lens in understanding our world (Tierney and Baumeister, 2019). We tend to see the prob­lems, the risks, the downside, and the reasons ­things ­will not work. We have historically viewed ­people with disabilities through a negativity bias, focusing on symptoms, handicaps, impairments, and limitations and not seeing inherent abilities (Anderson and Kress, 2003). Instead of beginning with prob­lems, what if we started with strengths, abilities, commonalities, and desired outcomes? What if we explic­itly focus on strengths versus prob­lems when planning and delivering inclusive leisure ser­vices? The strengths approach gives us a needed corrective to negativity bias and helps us see possibilities and desired outcomes in a clear way (Anderson and Heyne, 2021).

Promoting inclusion in leisure environments and ser­vices for ­people of all abilities is at the heart of this book. The theories, practices, and guidelines you learn from this book ­will equip you to create inclusive spaces and experiences. However, for ­those tools to be effective, it is impor­tant to step back and critically evaluate the lens through which you view the ­people and communities you serve. This lens colors all other work you do and can make the difference between being truly inclusive or not.

In the strengths approach, we adjust our lens so that we focus on strengths and capabilities instead of prob­lems or deficits. Our goal as professionals is to help ­people of all abilities and backgrounds reach their goals and aspirations by leveraging personal and environmental strengths and resources (Anderson and Heyne, 2021). We view each person who desires to be included in recreation experiences holistically and as an equal partner in a collaborative pro­cess marked by mutual re­spect and confidence in abilities. In the strengths approach, we put an individual’s aspirations at the center of ser­vices and empower them to take the lead in the inclusion pro­cess, drawing on strengths and abilities to help them reach their goals. Individuals then experience the opportunity to exercise decision-­making and control over their recreation and leisure lifestyles. For example, you can encourage and support a friend who uses a wheelchair and wants to learn rock climbing, focusing on her upper-­body strength and intrinsic motivation to pursue a new passion, and collaboratively problem-­solve skill adaptation to ensure success with the sport.

An impor­tant component of the strengths approach is valuing the unique abilities each person brings to the leisure experience. Valuing an individual for their differences and uniqueness allows for the establishment of natu­ral relationships and supports in the community and in society at large. Ensuring ­every individual’s right to play a valued role in their leisure passions validates ­these individuals’ experiences. For example, a person with blindness on a wilderness canoe trip added a valued role in the group, helping fellow travelers savor the sounds of the natu­ral world more mindfully by drawing attention to what he heard more clearly than they. Although the person with blindness needed assistance in some aspects of the wilderness canoe trip, in other aspects he added to the quality of the experience in a way ­others could not. Working with a strengths approach can transform the lives of ­people, communities, and society in positive ways, leading to a more inclusive world.

In this chapter, strengths approach and strengths-­based approach are used interchangeably. In general, the term strengths approach typically refers to the broad perspective of viewing ­people and practice. The term strengths-­based approach tends to be used more generally when referring to specific practices within the strengths approach. However, the two terms are used interchangeably across recreation, health, and ­human ser­vices. Even though the language used appears to be evolving as the strengths paradigm grows, ­there is no consensus about which terminology to use at this time (Anderson and Heyne, 2021). Throughout this book, we use strengths approach and strengths-­based approach interchangeably as well.

Philosophy of the Strengths Approach

The strengths approach helps us dispel long-­standing ste­reo­types about ­people with disabilities. ­These ste­reo­types include pitying ­people with disabilities, seeing ­people with disabilities as sick, broken, and helpless, and seeing lack of abilities and purpose (Momene, 2015). The strengths approach also challenges the ste­reo­types that ­people with disabilities are always in need of aid or assistance, that they cannot be in­de­pen­dent, and cannot function autonomously. When ­people with disabilities are viewed through ­these negative lenses, opportunities for full inclusion are greatly diminished.

The philosophy of the strengths approach integrates princi­ples of social justice: inclusion, collaboration, self-­determination, transparency, re­spect, the sharing of resources, and regard for ­human rights (Hammond and Zimmerman, n.d.). Social justice has eluded ­people with disabilities as they have historically experienced unequal access to life opportunities, including leisure (Smart, 2009). A social justice lens allows us to see structural, social, po­liti­cal, and economic realities that can cause marginalization of groups of ­people. Coupled with a strengths approach, we can make changes that allow ­people to achieve their dreams, goals, and possibilities.

How Does the Strengths Approach Differ From the Deficits Approach?

The strengths approach differs significantly from the deficits or problem-­oriented approach that has often been used in our work (Anderson and Heyne, 2021). In the strengths approach, we seek to understand goals and aspirations versus prob­lems or barriers to inclusion in leisure. The deficits approach is often marked by unequal power, where the professional is the expert, imparting their knowledge on the person with the disability. In the strengths approach, the participants seeking ser­vices are the experts in their lives and the professional becomes an equal, collaborative partner. Context ­matters in the strengths approach, so we must understand not just participants but their environments as well. This includes the environments where they live, navigate, work, and re­create. In the strengths approach, we avoid labeling and diagnoses and look instead to a person’s capacities and abilities in pursuing recreation experiences.

The strengths approach is a paradigm shift and requires careful analy­sis of our beliefs, language, and practices and the philosophy portrayed by all (Anderson and Heyne, 2021). We must carefully examine our beliefs for implicit bias, particularly a negative view of ­people with disabilities as “less than.” Our language must be positive, strengths based, and reflective of a belief in ­human capacity. Instead of clients, we say participants. Instead of using medical labels and jargon, we talk about ­people’s unique abilities and talents. When we look at ser­vices, we need to shift from deficit-­oriented practices to strengths-­based practices. For example, when we conduct an intake interview to a program, we focus on what the person can do and wants to do, not on their label or diagnosis. ­Table 2.1 provides examples of how we can realign our language and practices to a strengths-­based approach.

­Table 2.1 A Comparison of Strengths-­Based and Deficits-­Based Perspectives

More Excerpts From Inclusive Leisure With HKPropel Access