Offering and honoring meaningful choices
Communication is for much more than making choices, and decisions are an integral part of our lives. I recently heard that non-disabled adults make something like 30,000 choices per day ... per day! Now if you are a child, a disabled person, an elderly person, or someone else for whom choice-making has been deprioritized the number is far lower and your decisions can be far less meaningful and/or impactful. Speaking as a family member I know that life can be easier, quicker, and cleaner when we go about our routines on autopilot, without thinking and without stopping to ask the opinions of people who have trouble communicating.
Decision-making leads to self-determination and self-advocacy: speaking up for oneself, asking for support, and deciding how to live one's life. If you aren't given the opportunity to make choices, even everyday ones, you don't have access to self-determination and self-advocacy skills. Even more crucially, you don't know how to say "No!," "I don't like that," "Stop!," or "I don't want to."
In addition to offering choices we must also honor those decisions. For example, if I ask a person I'm supporting, "Do you feel like going to Target today?" and they say, "No," I must respect that and not make the person go to Target against their wishes. If the person communicates, "I want to sing at open mic night," and I'm scared of performing in front of people, I must honor that person's decision and help them arrange supports for open mic night.
Of course the idea of Dignity of Risk means that we must also support people in learning from mistakes. This doesn't mean asking, "Want to swim with sharks?" without giving context or information ... it means respecting when a person makes a choice with which we might not agree, and which includes some inherent risk. Some examples include:
Whether to complete a homework assignment
Whether to call out sick from work when you're not ill
Learning to ski, bike, swim, or play a sport
Asking someone out on a date
Trying a new food or drink
Going to college
Applying for a job
Both everyday and life choices require a certain amount of risk taking, and with support from trusted people in our lives we learn to navigate the decision-making process.
I'm always thinking of how to offer and honor meaningful choices, and was particularly inspired by a recent social media post from AssistiveWare (below). It depicts a person (assumedly a parent) asking a smaller person (assumedly a child) to point to which shirt they would like to wear. The smaller person is thinking about a different shirt than what is offered, and eventually looks upset, turns away, and thinks, "I can point, but I have MORE to say." So much is communicated through this illustration:
The parent is trying
The child doesn't have a way to say "something else"
The child doesn't get to wear the shirt they want
The parent doesn't get to support the child in making a choice
The child is growing more upset as time passes
The parent is growing more upset as time passes
Both people end up in a negative space
“We learn autonomy by experiencing choice and control." – Erin Sheldon, 2019