Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Dignity Of Risk

Readers of a certain age will instantly recognize the music, and especially the voice-over, in the video below.

In the era before multiple television channels dedicated to showing sports 24/7 existed, ABC’s Wide World of Sports offered the opportunity to see televised sports that otherwise were never broadcasted in America, sports such as rodeo, curling, jai-alai, surfing, logger sports, demolition derby, slow pitch softball, and badminton.

The intro to the broadcast shown in the clip above has taken on an almost iconic status in our culture. I think it has to do with the universality of the phrase “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” To varying degrees, most of us have experienced both emotions and can see our own lives embodies in that simple phrase.

Whenever I hear that phrase, I am reminded of another phrase, one I used to hear often when I was starting out in the field of serving individuals with one or more developmental disabilities. That phrase is “dignity of risk.”

During the 1970s and 1980s, the de-institutionalization years, individuals who had spent their lives in institutions began to be integrated back into their communities. This caused some concern for many well meaning families, caregivers, and providers who worried about the risks involved. The worries expressed included apprehension that these individuals would be leaving places where they were safe, where they were happy, and where all their friends were, for a world fraught with danger and threats.

The phrase “dignity of risk” was meant to acknowledge that, indeed, those coming out of the institutions faced risks, but with those risks came great opportunities. That all of us, regardless of our ability or disability, can experience a more robust life when we can make choices and take responsibility for those choices. That without occasionally stepping outside of our comfort zone, none of us will have opportunities to experience either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. Families, caregivers, and providers had to be reminded that both experiences, high and low, could be positive and life changing, and that everyone should be given the opportunity to create those experiences for themselves.

Times have changed, and very few people argue anymore that they’d prefer to see individuals with one or more developmental disabilities living in the sheltered world of institutions (which often weren’t very safe or healthy, anyway). Most people now agree that communities benefit greatly from the full participation of all of its members.

And yet, I still hear elements of those long ago expressed concerns when difficult things happen to those we serve. I often hear people engaging in wishful thinking, yearning to put some of those we serve into a protective bubble so they won’t have to experience anything unpleasant.

I reject that sort of thinking.

Now, let me be clear – I believe that the health and safety of those we serve are paramount, and I don’t advocate that we ignore safety when providing services.

But I also believe strongly that there needs to be a balance. Support systems should not overly favor safety versus growth. We can’t forget that the best things in life happen to people when they explore boundaries and look for new opportunities. A perfectly sheltered life is a life without development. We’ve seen what that life looks like for those we serve, and it wasn’t pretty.

There are many lessons to be found in both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and those we serve should have the chance to learn those lessons just like the rest of us.

Then again, what do I know?

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