I ended up doing some research this weekend and as a result I was on a lot of web pages regarding services to people with intellectual disabilities. Forgive me for saying this but reading these takes an awful lot of concentration. There is a disturbing 'sameness' to them that concerns me. It's like there are a set of words and a set of ideas that need to appear and, inevitably, they do. Inclusion. Integration. Respect. All wonderful words, and they appear with a regularity and predictability that reminds me of that terrific bit of advice, 'this job requires sincerity and once you can fake that, you've got it made.' Perhaps, I'm being too critical. Perhaps.
However, one thing I noticed was a phrase that kept appearing over and over again. A collection of words that sounds good, on first reading but sounds ominous after several readings. 'We offer choices.'
Choices are a good thing.
I get it. I agree with it.
When the 'choices' bandwagon hit service provision I was, initially, pleased. I thought that it was about time that people with disabilities had choices, real meaningful choices, about how they lived their lives, about what goals they set for themselves, about the morality they would set personally. But then I discovered that the 'choice' movement wasn't about 'choices' but about 'offering choices'. Not the same thing at all. But before I begin, lets get something straight. We've always offered choices. Even if it was as basic as 'eat this or eat nothing at all' or 'do this or suffer consequences' or 'my will or your pain'. Choices have always been there, dark choices, but choices. These were the choices we offered.
Offering choices and respecting choices are very different things. The mere act of 'offering' means that we get to choose the 'set' of things being presented for choosing, that we get to exclude from the bunch those things we don't want or don't approve of, that we still dominate the decision making process. Not only that but we may even have meetings with large groups of people, staff, parents, siblings, consultants, to determine which choices will be made available. Relationships, yes ... kissing, no; movies, yes ... boozing, no; celery, yes ... smoking, no. We can and often do purposely cull out those things that would either cause us to sweat because of risk, or cause us discomfort because of our own personal morality.
Respecting choices, is much more difficult. In fact, I never saw those two words together on a single website or blog about the issue of choices. No, that's not true. I saw those words together when speaking of 'parents' or 'family', when speaking of 'non controversial' issues. Never, however, in relationship to things that adults do, or things that could cause significant problems for agencies.
I get that being a service provider is difficult and that we have got to constantly be on guard about the decisions we make. I truly get that. I also get that sometimes the system doesn't have the freedom within it that we'd like it to have. I get that. I just think that we should constantly be trying to develop that freedom, to constantly be pushing ourselves and our values to the point that real choice with real risk and with real ramifications becomes part of the mix. My worry is that with 'faux' progress we stop trying. We rest, comfortably, because we use the word choice rather than because people with disabilities actually have it. Honesty brings change, pretense does not - something that by now we should have learned.
We all make choices that piss other people off. We all choose from an array of possibilities that, maybe should be prescreened. We all have to deal with making decisions on impulse rather than on solid investigation and information. I don't know how many times in my life I've given 'consent' that wasn't 'informed'. But, that's the stuff of adulthood.
So, here's to the day that instead of offering choices we respect them. Because in respecting choices we begin to respect the decision maker.