UNC's Center for Development and Learning trained about 30 interviewers to question residents at the 13 psychiatric, mental retardation and special care institutions in North Carolina about their desire to re-enter the community.
The interviews are part of the statewide Olmstead Project, a plan that aims to find institutionalized people who are willing and able to leave hospitals and to help them with their transition, said Deborah Zuver, Olmstead Project coordinator at the Center for Development and Learning.
But before North Carolina can provide these resources, Zuver said, officials must have a better understanding of what services are needed.
Zuver, a licensed marriage, child and family therapist, was hired for the project because of her background working with people who have behavioral and learning disabilities.
A treatment team also works to consider an individual's physical and mental needs and to conduct a planning meeting based on the interview results. The interviewees and their guardians are then invited to the meeting to add their opinions.
Zuver said she often hears of misconceptions regarding the information gathering process. "Some people think we're going in and asking these people with disabilities to make the decision for themselves," she said. "What we're really doing is asking them to give their preference."
Another misunderstanding involves guardians who think their loved ones will be kicked out of institutions if they express an interest in living in the community.
Zuver also said Olmstead Project director Julia Rusert kept institution residents' needs in mind when designing the interview questionnaire.
Some questions, such as "Do you know what it means to live in a community?" are in a yes-or-no format, while others seek longer answers from those able to give them. All inquiries are asked several times but phrased differently to better monitor consistency in the interviewee's answers.
Zuver said this strategy overcomes a common problem in dealing with people with mental retardation or psychological disabilities.
"It's giving people more than one chance to respond to the question in a way so that we can see if they're consistent," Zuver said. "It helps us get a better picture of what their response is."
Other measures are taken for residents who cannot verbally respond to questions. For example, interviewees can point to their answer on a communication board or use facial gestures or head-nodding to convey their answer. Hearing-impaired individuals also have access to sign language interpreters.
Zuver said these tactics could allow more than 3,000 people in N.C. institutions to be interviewed, although the process remains optional.
"The project means that we need to start seeing our community as comprised of a broad range of people with a broad range of abilities," she said. "I think we need to be able to have a vision down the road of a more inclusive community."
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