Circles of support for people with disabilities and autism in India and the EU

Developing qualification modules for person-centred community inclusion networks

“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
Mahatma Gandhi


The aim of the project is, through a transnational learning process, to develop professional skills in human service professions in order to promote informal social networks (circles of support – COS) around people with disabilities and autism in local communities, thereby contributing to social inclusion and cohesion.

The principal target groups are the members of higher educational institutions and social service organisations, as well as vulnerable individuals and their support networks in local communities.

The main activities consist in the development and testing of training approaches for the different regions, the implementation and evaluation of practical approaches, and the case-based analysis of social support systems, while enhancing the partners’ intercultural competences and transnational collaboration.

Circles of support for community inclusion

Both in India and in the European Union, vulnerable individuals are in danger of exclusion or excluded from community and neighbourhood. Official declarations call for equal opportunities, full participation and empowerment of people with different support needs.

Processes of social change place communities under severe tension, there are disintegrative pressures on social cohesion. The most vulnerable members of society come under the threat of social exclusion. Although the specific characteristics of these tensions vary considerably in the EU and India, there is nevertheless in both regions a search for ways to facilitate and promote the cohesive and inclusive qualities of communities. We need to address these aspirations. One way is through strengthening the informal support networks in local communities, empowering their members better to include their more vulnerable members. The idea of ‘circles of support’ is a promising approach in this context.

The model of a circle of support (COS) was developed in Canada and spread fairly quickly to North America and the United Kingdom in the 1980s. It was introduced into Germany at the end of the 1990s. A circle of support is a group of people who meet together regularly to help an individual (the ‘focus person’) accomplish his or her personal goals in life. The circle acts as a community around that person who, for one reason or another, is unable to achieve his or her aspirations independently. The members of the circle of support, who may include family, friends and other community members, are usually not paid for their involvement. They participate because they care enough about the focus person to give their time and energy to helping that person to overcome obstacles and enhance his or her options in life. A circle properly facilitated is empowering to all of the individuals involved (not just the focus person) and, unlike many human service systems, does not reinforce dependence.

Within the evolving paradigms of empowerment and inclusion, there is increasing recognition of the role universities are to play in the disciplines of human sciences – in particular psychology, social studies and education – in training professionals to work in local communities with their vulnerable members. Human services interventions are coming more and more to focus on tapping and developing the resources of local communities – a changed role from providers to facilitators. This paradigm shift creates new challenges and at the same time poses new dangers. University curricula need on the one hand to train professionals in community facilitation and empowerment skills, while at the same time sharpening their critical awareness of the ambivalence of these developments in human services. This project seeks to contribute in this respect.



Project objectives

The project impacts at four levels:

  1. promoting scientific knowledge
    - gaining a better understanding of the qualities of social networks in EU and India
    - understanding the patterns of weak and strong ties and formal / informal networks in the respective regions
    This is aimed at stimulating learning both within the scientific community and among lay audiences.

  2. promoting professional knowledge and skills
    - developing curricula for higher educational institutions and human service agencies with the objective of reinforcing social networks at the formal / informal boundary
    - promoting the exchange of knowledge and skills among professionals in human sciences and human services in the field of community education / circles of support
    This is targeted at enhancing learning among both professionals and institutions in higher education and social/community services, with dissemination to the wider higher educational community and human service NGOs and CBOs.

  3. promoting social network resources in the participating communities
    - encouraging dialogical learning processes between human service professionals and key community activists (citizen involvement in decision making)
    - strengthening and diversifying social networks and informal institutions of civil society
    This is aimed at key lay actors in the participating communities, with dissemination to community activists and CBOs in both regions.

  4. setting up sustainable frameworks for the promotion of circles of support in the regions
    - establishing a bilateral India/EU resource centre on 'circles of support' within the ICEA (International Community Education Association)
    This is aimed at decision makers, policy planners and scientists in both regions.