By | October 15, 2019

Have you ever tried something new against the advice of your parents or other family members? How did it work out? Maybe the experience revealed new opportunities to you and changed the course of your life. Maybe it was a disaster, and you had to deal with the consequences.

That’s self-determination—the right to make decisions about your life (even if, in retrospect, they were bad ones). Many individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) don’t get the chance to make such decisions. Often, their parents, support workers or case managers make decisions about fundamental parts of their day-to-day lives, like where they live, what they do and who they spend time with.

IDD service providers have a responsibility to promote self-determination, support choice-making and empower the people they support. Direct support professionals (DSPs) should provide the appropriate support and education so people can safely and successfully make choices in their lives.

Empowerment Matters

In order to empower the individual served, a DSP should actively listen to and honor the individual’s choices—even if they feel the individual is making the “wrong” choice.

The process of empowering another person is like building a strong tower of bricks. As more bricks are put in place, the more empowered the person becomes. Here are the six building blocks for creating a strong foundation for empowerment.

1. Increase Life Experiences

The amount and variety of direct experience a person has affects that person’s ability to make decisions. Not allowing an individual with IDD to have a range of life experiences diminishes their ability to make well-informed decisions.

A DSP should help to expose the individual they support to a variety of activities, places and people to build their range of experiences. Then the DSP can help the individual translate those experiences into knowledge that will create confidence and thoughtfulness in decision-making.

2. Build Self-Esteem

Many people with disabilities experience low self-esteem, which can prevent them from asserting their needs and wants. Here are some ways DSPs can help the people they support build their self-esteem:

  • Promote self-care, like eating healthy foods, drinking enough water and getting exercise. These activities can boost an individual’s mood and help them feel empowered to do more.
  • If the person you support says negative things about themselves, like “I’m stupid” or “I can’t do anything,” help them replace these thoughts with more positive or constructive messages, such as “I’m learning” or “I need help.”
  • Make sure they are participating in activities they are talented in and enjoy. Expose them to new activities where they might be able to build a new talent or skill.
  • For people with IDD who receive services, it can be empowering to serve others. Volunteer activities, such as delivering Meals on Wheels, picking up litter or spending time at an animal shelter, can boost self-esteem.

3. Develop Assertiveness

Assertive communication means a person is able to stand up for their own desires and rights and can express themselves honestly without hurting others. People using assertive communication are honest about their feelings and use direct statements to express what they mean.

The person being supported needs to know they have the right to say “no” or “I don’t know,” express their opinions and feelings, change their mind, and make decisions and deal with the consequences. Most people who are learning to use assertive communication skills benefit from role-playing where they can practice the skills in a safe environment with a safe person.

4. Enhance Capabilities

Focus on nurturing the natural abilities, gifts, strengths and unique characteristics of the person being supported. Doing so can maximize their capacity and potential.

5. Provide Choices

True empowerment can only be achieved when people have real choices and options that are consistently available to them. The greater the number and variety of options, the more empowered a person can become.

6. Maximize Support

This doesn’t mean providing the maximum level of support! Rather, DSPs should gauge the level of support they provide to maximize empowerment. Levels of support range from direct and immediate intervention to guided facilitation to no intervention at all.

An Evolving Empowerment Process

When creating supports for people, it is important to understand that it can be a “trial and error” type of process. If one type of support does not work, then it is up to the individual and their support team to work together to create or find another one.

In order to help the person to achieve the greatest amount of control, DSPs will need to be flexible and willing to accommodate a much larger degree of uncertainty than would exist if the DSPs were deciding the routines, activities and schedule for people they support. They will also need to be creative in the ways they help, support and empower these individuals.

Diane Morris

Diane has been researching, writing and advocating on issues facing people with IDD and autism for 15 years -- from the time her two sons were diagnosed with autism. She has more than twenty years of communications experience and previously worked at a disability rights non-profit.

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