CQL | The Council on Quality and Leadership

Understanding Risk

The "Dignity of Risk" has been discussed since the 1960s. Dignity of Risk reflects a commitment to each person's right to control his or her destiny and fully experience life, both the good and the bad. Although Dignity of Risk is frequently debated, it is less often practiced. So what's the problem?

Our concern about risk stems from our uncertainty and confusion about responsibility. First, we are unsure of our responsibility for keeping a person "safe from harm" through the provision of services. Second, we have little experience defining the person's responsibility (and ability) to acknowledge the potential consequences associated with typical risks encountered in life.

Safety is not an absence of risk. Instead, safety is matching the level of risk to personal well-being.Safety is not an absence of risk. Instead, safety is matching the level of risk to personal well being. The service provider's challenge is to manage risk, not avoid it.

While we cannot guarantee people safety from harm, we can diligently assess individual variables related to risk within the service process. This "risk" assessment is individualized. Risk cannot be evaluated in the absence of knowledge about the person. The degree of risk is determined by weighing the dangers in the environment, individual skills, experiences, and supports. Skills, experience and supports can lessen the amount of risk present in a given situation. Beyond the accepted minimum safety standards, no guidelines can ensure unquestionable safety. A reasonable precaution for one person is an outrageous intrusion for another.

Each person's support needs for any new situation or experience must be defined through the service process. If the person needs little or no support, consider the activity routine. For example, even though driving a car poses risks, these risks are considered reasonable for a person who has the needed skills, experience and supports. Risk increases when skill, experience and support are limited.


The following guidelines enable us to manage risk and identify supports for people:

Give people permission to try.
Take action and enable the person to experience new situations. Many discussions about risk get mired in the hypothetical particulars of a specific event or activity that have not yet taken place. Don't let this happen. Act by learning about the person and then assisting the person to gain experience and skill under the safest conditions.

Assess the true cost of failure.
All risky situations are not equal. Some consequences are minor and inconvenient; others are dramatic and permanent.

Minimize risk through dialogue.
Don't assume that people understand the skills and experiences required for different situations. Discuss requirements and outcomes with people and develop a shared understanding.

Plan for "what if" situations.
Anticipate and plan for mistakes or failure. Practice contingencies. This prevents minor failures from becoming major disasters.

Give people the opportunity to learn from small mistakes.
No person should be placed in the position of making major risky decisions, without the benefit of previous experience and practice.

Support the person.
When risk increases, so does the need for support.

The service provider's responsibility is to individually assess risks and take reasonable precautions to prevent foreseeable dangers. This is different from protecting people from all potential consequences. Learning includes action, and all action carries risk. Avoiding all risk prevents people from learning and from leading a life that is full and rich.


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