Thinking About Responsibility
Although often considered in relationship to individual rights, responsibility may have more connection to social position and active participation in community life. Responsibility is not a thing, it's a concept. It is a social concept that enables groups of individuals to live in relative harmony. We are considered responsible if we answer for our conduct and live up to the obligations and promises we make to others.
The concept of responsibility has little meaning for people with limited knowledge or access to different and valued social roles. Social roles provide a context for individual choice and decision making. Supporting people with disabilities to be responsible citizens requires ensuring access to the full range of opportunities within our community and enabling people to learn about the demands and requirements associated with those opportunities.
We learn to be responsible through a combination of example, opportunity, and experience. In most cultures, parents are charged with the task of teaching responsibility to their children. The roles we fill, first within our families, and later within the larger community, define expectations for our behavior. Learning about accepted behavior and living up to those expectations is a lifelong endeavor. The nature of what is expected changes with time as we form new relationships and begin new experiences.
The elements of learning responsibility – example, opportunity, and experience – can be used to shape efforts to support people with disabilities.
- Examples of desired action in natural settings by people who are significant to the learner are the most effective tool for learning. Providing concrete examples of behavior judged to be responsible supports people to learn through modeling and shared experience.
- Opportunity refers to the chance to try out responsible behaviors. Opportunity for trial allows the person to experiment with different actions and to individualize general concepts and ideas to one's own life experiences.
- Experience is repeated opportunity over time. This enables the person to practice and perfect the behaviors associated with responsibility.
Responsible behavior is a learned choice, a reflection of the social roles each person assumes and values. Most people choose to live up to the expectations of the roles they play because they value the benefits and acknowledgement received. Others reject typical social roles, choosing instead to be guided by what they believe will provide them with the most benefit and reward without great concern for others. Encouraging responsibility means that we support people in choosing social roles and conducting activities associated with those roles.
People with disabilities may experience real difficulty in assuming different social roles due to the specific challenges with which they live or their limited life experiences. The service process should assist people to overcome barriers to active social participation. While teaching specific skills and behavior are important, providing access to opportunity and information as well as supporting people with technology are even more critical elements for ensuring people have access to social participation. People cannot learn about individual responsibility without the competency gained through active participation in community life.