Does the emphasis placed on the rights of people with disabilities beg the question of corresponding responsibilities? This issue is put into context in the following extract from the manual of The Council on Quality and Leadership in Supports for People with Disabilities—the US-based organisation whose Personal Outcomes quality system is being adopted in several Irish services.


People with disabilities have the same rights as all other citizens, unless certain rights have been limited by a court of law. Those rights include, but are not limited to:

  • privacy
  • religious expression
  • freedom to associate with people of one’s choice
  • marriage and children
  • equal education opportunity
  • equal pay for equal work
  • voting
  • property ownership
  • freedom to choose

Courts and legislation have granted people with disabilities additional protections because of mistreatment and discrimination. Those include rights such as:

  • treatment in the least restrictive environments
  • confidentiality
  • access to transportation
  • access to environments used by the general public
  • access to employment opportunities

Organisations assist people to know, understand and exercise their rights. Assistance can be in the form of example, opportunity and experience. Taking advantage of naturally occurring events (such as an election) to explain and discuss particular rights provides people with concrete examples. All those who support people—family, friends, staff—act as facilitators to create an environment in which the exercise of rights is encouraged and expected.

The exercise of rights carries with it responsibility. People think about the impact on others and themselves when they exercise rights. Responsibility also has a larger context. 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 is 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 own 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 behaviour. Learning about accepted behaviour and living up to those expectations is a lifelong endeavour. 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 tools for learning. Providing concrete examples of behaviour judged to be responsible supports people to learn through modelling and shared experience.

Opportunity for trial allows the person to experiment with different actions and to individualise general concepts and ideas to one’s own life experiences. Experience is repeated opportunity over time. This enables the person to practise and perfect the behaviours associated with responsibility.

Responsible behaviour 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 behaviour 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.