Sometimes the freedom to make choices means having the opportunity to choose poorly.
For many years, people with developmental disabilities were not supported or allowed to make choices. They were locked
into institutions in sterile, controlled environments, to assure their safety and the safety of the community. What we
now know is that not only did these settings degrade and dehumanize people, but they often weren't the safe and healthy
environments we supposed them to be.
Today, individuals with developmental disabilities live and work in our communities and have many more opportunities to
seek independence and lead fulfilling lives. Part of living independently is making choices for yourself. There is an
innate risk in making a choice. Sometimes, you choose the wrong thing. Sometimes, that wrong choice can affect your
health or safety. But if someone takes away all chances of making a wrong choice, are you really getting to choose? And
are you learning to make choices on your own?
Yet being safe and healthy can be as important as self-determination in your quality of life. So, how does a person
with disabilities and her caregivers balance her right to make decisions in her own life with the need to assure that
those decisions do not negatively affect her health and safety? How does an individual with developmental disabilities
exercise his right to make decisions without the risk of someone taking that right away if all his decisions aren't
This is the balancing act faced every day by people with disabilities and their service providers - agencies such as
Community Connections. People with disabilities have the right to live as independently as possible in their
communities. They have the right and even the responsibility to control as much of their lives and destinies as
possible. Their paid caregivers, however, have a responsibility to ensure the individuals' health and safety.
There is no easy answer to this conundrum. It is a constant act of self-reflection and communication between a person
with disabilities and his or her professional caregivers. Often, it means defining the level of risk that the person
and her friends and professional support team are willing take. It should always take into account the preferences,needs and strengths of the person with a disability and include opportunities for that person to learn the skills
needed for good decision-making.
We all make poor choices at times. Most are small daily choices that have little impact on our lives, such as choosing
to wear that shirt with those pants or drinking a soda instead of water. Others are more serious, such as choosing not
to follow through with medical treatment or breaking the law.
These choices are made whether or not a person has a disability. When we become too afraid of the risk, when we take
the choices away, we end up taking away a person's humanity. That is probably the worst choice of all.
Tara Kiene is the director of case management with Community Connections Inc.