Norwegian and American professors conduct focus group research with persons with disabilities
For the past two years, Brent Askvig, executive director of the North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities on Minot State University’s campus, has travelled to Norway each fall to collaborate with Jan Meyer, a professor at Harstad University College in Harstad, Norway. This fall, Meyer joined MSU as a visiting professor to continue their cooperation on focus group research with persons with disabilities. In addition to learning a lot from each other, Askvig and Meyer plan to publish a scholarly paper comparing the life experiences of individuals with disabilities in Norway and North Dakota.
Before meeting Askvig, Meyer had already worked with a focus group of individuals with intellectual disabilities. He interviewed a group of seven, who currently live within their communities in their own apartments. The group consisted of four men and three women between the ages of 20 and 55. Some of them have lived in state institutions, while others have not. He conducted four meetings with them to learn about their feelings, their work, their daily activities and what help they receive or need.
Askvig wants to replicate Meyer’s research in the U.S. to compare the differences between the countries. He plans to interview a focus group of five to 10 people to find out what their lives are really like within their communities.
"This is good. We can have comparative work," said Meyer. "I hope for cooperation, like student and faculty exchanges, between our two institutions."
Meyer and Askvig just returned from the 2008 Association of University Centers on Disability Annual Meeting and Conference in Washington, D.C., where they presented "Norwegian and Midwestern U.S. Citizens’ Perspectives on Institutional and Community Living." The AUCD is a network of interdisciplinary centers advancing policy and practice for and with individuals with developmental and other disabilities, their families and communities.
The Scandinavian countries were among the first to promote community integration, inclusion and community services for persons with disabilities. Every public building and medium of public transportation are handicapped-accessible, which is mandated by law. Most of the old buildings and houses are also accessible. The personnel at NDCPD are learning from Meyer and finding differences in attitudes. The Norwegians want healthcare provided by the public (government) not private sector. Generally, Americans are anxious about paying higher taxes and pay private entities to cover healthcare costs.
A leader in the Norwegian movement from deinstitutionalization to community-based services for persons with disabilities during the 1990s, Meyer said his country’s goal is successful integration and inclusion for individuals with disabilities. The Norwegian Social Welfare System is an organized set of supports for all Norwegian citizens, regardless of disability or even the severity of a disability. All supports are coordinated through local townships, the lowest level of government. Thus, the people who live in the community support all others who live in the community. These supports are provided free by the government, but Norwegian citizens are heavily taxed to finance this support.
Approximately 20,000 people lived at the North Dakota Developmental Center at Grafton over its first 100 years. There are still about 121 inhabitants there today.
Meyer has visited the United States several times and actually completed a sabbatical at the University of Minnesota in 2000, where he studied the Minnesota deinstitutionalization process. In October 2005, he was hosted by NDCPD for the first time. Meyer was the first president of Harstad College. Now back in the classroom, he spends much of his time preparing students to work as direct support personnel for individuals with disabilities who live in the community.
Social educators, who are the direct support staff who work with individuals with disabilities in the community, possess backgrounds in special education, social work and nursing. Consequently, they have skills in case management and service coordination, health, wellness and medications, and instructional practice.
"They should choose what they are motivated to study, not just which profession they can make the most money from," said Meyer when asked what advice he would have for students. "Young people have a great future in North Dakota if the new oil revenue is used wisely."
On Nov. 23, Meyer will travel on to the University of Minnesota.