Person-Centered Planning: Maps and Paths to the Future

by Howard Garner and Lise Dietz

Person-centered planning is changing how people view the futures of individuals with severe disabilities. This approach, also known as personal futures planning, is a radical change from how services have been planned and delivered to persons with disabilities in the past. In fact, it is being referred to by some as a "paradigm shift"--a completely different way of looking at services for persons with disabilities (Bradley, 1994; Mount, 1992). So before you say "we are already doing that," you may need to learn more about how this approach is empowering people to move beyond the traditional service system to follow a more personal and more powerful path.

Person-centered planning goes well beyond the traditional individualized planning processes that occur in the development of individualized educational programs (IEP), transition plans for youth who are leaving school, and rehabilitation plans for adults. These approaches have focused on the services that "the system" can offer an individual and the family. The systems approach has unsuccessfully tried to create "slots" or placements in schools, social services, and rehabilitation agencies to serve the needs of persons with disabilities. However, the system has always been hampered by the absence of enough money to meet all of the diverse needs, and individuals have been forced to accept and be grateful for what was available, even if it did not fit their personal situation and aspirations. In addition, research on the traditional planning process casts doubt on the degree to which parents become full partners with professionals in making plans for their children's futures (Smith, 1990).

The person-centered approach relies much less on the service system by organizing truly individualized, natural, and creative supports to achieve meaningful goals based on the individual's strengths and preferences. No longer is planning based on "the services available at the present time" which has been the age-old excuse that has restricted our thinking, planning, and actions. The person-centered approach creates a team of people who know and care about the individual with a disability, who come together to develop and share a dream for the person's future, and who work together to organize and provide the supports necessary to make that dream a reality.

Among the person-centered planning approaches are Making Action Plans, known as MAPS (Forest & Lusthaus, 1990); Group Action Planning, known as GAP (Turnbull & Turnbull, 1992); and Planning Alternative Tomorrows with Hope, known as PATH (Pearpoint, O'Brien, & Forest, 1993).

Although each of these three approaches has unique features, they share a number of basic values and strategies. Central to person-centered planning is a circle of friends and supporters, including the person with a disability, family members, friends, peers, teachers, and other service providers. This team meets ~i number of times to build relationships with the person with a disability, to explore his\her strengths and interests, and to develop team unity. Then, in a major planning session that can last from two to four hours the team develops a comprehensive plan for the individual's future.

In the PATH process the team creates a shared dream of a full and rich life for the person with a disability. The dream is for five to ten years in the future and is based on the person's strengths, interests, values, aspirations, and choices. The team works with the person with a disability to develop a clear description of a great life that is both positive and possible. To do this, the team asks the person with a disability to choose where he\she wants to live and with whom, where he\she will be working, and how he\she will be involved in the community, including friendships, recreation, and transportation. The individual's preferences and choices then become the basis for a clearly defined series of steps to make that dream come true. For example, what kind of job would the person like to have? How can the person gain experience now that could lead to a job in the future? Who on the team will take responsibility for making arrangements for the person to gain this experience? This process results in a strong commitment on the part of the team members to take specific actions now to help the individual progress along his\her path to the future.

Training in person-centered planning is an ongoing activity of a special project of the Virginia Institute for Developmental Disabilities (VIDD). In the spring of 1995 this project provided training to five teams in Chesterfield County, each of which was organized around a focus individual with disabilities. The teams included focus individuals (ages 1424), family members, friends, teachers, and other direct service providers. Each team created a personal futures plan for their focus person, based on his\her strengths and preferences. Because of the success achieved, two of the parents from the initial training teams replicated the training for an additional five individuals and their respective teams. This VIDD project is currently providing training to similar teams in Stafford and Middlesex Counties. The remainder of this article profiles some of the outcomes that person-centered planning has achieved in these three communities.

In Stafford County five focus individuals and their teams have just completed training in person-centered planning. As a result of this training, the focus individuals are currently pursuing their individual paths to exciting, community oriented futures. Plans were developed for inclusion in the community, transportation to favorite activities, independent living, and employment. Just as exciting as the plans themselves is the enthusiasm of the many teachers, support staff, specialists, and parents involved in the planning process. Each team member has a clear sense of the contributions he/she can make in helping the focus persons reach their dreams. Moreover, the Stafford County teams are sharing their strategies with each other which has led to even greater creativity and enthusiasm.

In Middlesex County five additional focus individuals and their teams are now completing the training. One focus individual's dream for the future is to increase social activities and interaction with peers. Currently, this young woman has few of these opportunities in her local community. Brainstorming by her team resulted in her obtaining information about People First, a self advocacy and social group for young people with disabilities, and developing a plan for transportation to People First meetings.

In Chesterfield County one young man in the severe disabilities program at Manchester High School is beginning his second work/volunteer experience in the community. As a result of his plan, he is included in a community service class this school year with the support of a peer aide. Through the creativity and energy of two of his teachers, and

supported by his peer aide, this young man is volunteering at a local nursing home. This volunteer experience allows him to be accepted in the community right now. Thus, he is already realizing his dream of spending time in the community, volunteering and interacting with people. Planning will continue to ensure that these opportunities are available to him once he graduates from school.

Person-centered planning requires a new and different way of thinking. No longer do we rely on the system and say, "We are sorry, our school and community do not offer that service." Instead we learn to say, "This is a reasonable and positive goal for this individual. Let's figure out how we can work together to make it happen.


  1. Bradley, V. (1994). Evolution of a new service paradigm. In V. Bradley, J. Ashbaugh, and B. Blaney (Eds.), Creating individual supports for people with developmental disabilities (pp. 11-32). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
  2. Forest, M., & Lusthaus, E. (1990). Everyone belongs with MAPS action planning system. Teaching Exceptional Children, 22, 32-35.
  3. Mount, B. (1992). Person-centered planning: Finding directions for change using personal futures planning. New York: Graphics Futures, Inc.
  4. Pearpoint, J., O'Brien, J., & Forest, M. (1993). Path: A workbook for planning possible positive futures: Planning alternative tomorrows with hope for schools, organizations, businesses, families. Toronto: Inclusion Press.
  5. Smith, S.W. (1990). Individualized education programs (IEPs) in special education: From intent to acquiescence. Exceptional Children, 57, 6-14.
  6. Turnbull, A., & Turnbull, R. (1992, Fall & Winter). Group action planning (GAP). Families and Disability Newsletter, pp. 1-13.

Reprinted with permission Four Runner, a publication of the Severe Disabilities
Technical Assistance Center (SD TAC) at Virginia Commonwealth Unversity,
Vol. 11(2), 1-2, Februrary 1996.