From Lisa: Digging into Self-Determination

  • April 19, 2018

As this legislative session winds down, we’re reflecting on a major theme recognized in a variety of bills this year -- the concept of self-determination verses a desire to protect people with disabilities. It is clear from proposed legislation about things like conservatorship, public guardianship, driver’s license designations, and supported decision-making that Tennessee state legislators grapple with how and when to intervene in people’s lives. What is a legislator to do when they feel a tension between the desire to promote and value freedom and choice, but they feel responsible as lawmakers to protect someone from perceived or actual harm? Throughout the session DRT advocates found ourselves at many tables educating policy makers about the potential impact of proposed legislation. Not for the first time, there were multiple bills that contained this underlying dissonance between the desire to protect and shelter the people we serve, as opposed to emphasizing self-determination and empowerment. 

In its purest form, this debate is tied to the social perception of what we believe about people with disabilities. What is success? Is it our role to impose a definition of life achievement on others? When does my opinion or judgement really matter when it comes to the life of someone else? Why am I allowed to make bad decisions when people with disabilities are shielded from these opportunities to grow and learn from their mistakes? And do we really believe that people should be able to live the way that they choose?

"...who we become is dependent on having had the opportunity to grow, to fail, to learn, and to succeed. This is how we become fully participating members of our communities. To be protected, shielded, and denied the opportunity to make decisions is to deny a person the right to truly live." 

This theme is an important discussion point, even within our own agency. For instance, DRT clearly promotes integration in living and working and participating fully in the community. We endorse competitive, integrated employment and inclusive classrooms. But what happens when a person with a disability wants to live, attend school, or work in a setting where the majority of their interactions are with only other people with disabilities? What if a person’s choice is to stay in an institution or sheltered work setting rather than move to a community placement? As a legal advocacy agency, Disability Rights Tennessee uses laws and rules to guide our practices and actions. We understand and respect that people have legal rights to choose, unless they have been determined to lack the capacity to do so, and we advocate that individuals with disabilities be able to exercise those rights. At the end of the day, the legal right to choose takes precedence. 

I’ve been thinking about how vital this theme is in the growth of our communities and that we all need to be thinking about how each of us is complicit to these ideas. For me it is about ensuring that people have the opportunity to reach their full potential. There are people who, against all odds, become something special. But for most of us, who we become is dependent on having had the opportunity to grow, to fail, to learn, and to succeed. This is how we become fully participating members of our communities. To be protected, shielded, and denied the opportunity to make decisions is to deny a person the right to truly live. 
 

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) is a nonprofit legal services organization that provides FREE services to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities.

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