Stroke and brain injury survivors with communication and physical challenges are often well-protected from risk by loving family members or caregivers. While risk may sound like a bad thing, there’s something very important about it to the human experience. Guest blogger Tricia Rachfall offers insights about the dignity of risk in the lives of those with disabilities.

About 10 years ago, while teaching in Shanghai, China, I was offered the opportunity to bungee jump off the Shanghai soccer stadium for free. While this is normally a relatively costly experience, I politely declined the offer because there is no amount of money that would convince me that this was a risk worth taking. In fact, every year I ask my students if any of them would bungee jump for free if the offer was presented. The result is usually a 50/50 split; there’s no right or wrong answer.

Bungee Jump - Dignity of Risk

Photo credit: Eric Chan, via flickr

Dignity of Risk

Every one of us determines a level of risk we judge to be acceptable. After evaluating the situation, either we take the risk or we don’t. What is significant is that we choose what our own level of risk is, and we decide to partake in the experience or not. The right to choose is called self-determination — and the right to make a mistake or fail is called dignity of risk.

After a change in one’s health or functional status, many people feel that their ability for self-determination has changed. “In the process of receiving treatment they seem to have somehow given up their ‘right’ to make risky or potentially self-defeating choices without intervention from … clinicians, service providers or even family members wishing to protect them” (Parsons, 2009).

Every life experience incorporates a potential for risk, a chance to succeed, a chance to make a mistake, and a chance to fail. We learn by doing – by trying something and seeing what happens. In fact, we often learn as much, if not more, from our mistakes than we do from our successes. When any person is “denied the dignity of risk, they are being denied the opportunity to learn and recover” (Parsons, 2009). Thinking back to the bungee jumping example, the fact that I had an option to jump or not to jump was more important than my final decision. I chose not to jump. . . but I could have. . .

Taking away choice, taking away risk, taking away opportunities – it’s taking away hope. Hope is essential to growth, recovery, and feelings that the future has positive possibilities. When you take away people’s hope, you disempower people, leading to feelings of learned helplessness (nothing I do matters so why try? or nothing I choose matters, so why choose?), “which is often more debilitating and disabling than any illness itself” (Parsons, 2009).

The Importance of Recreation

Therapeutic Recreation (TR) practice supports a humanistic perspective, viewing each person as a unique whole, possessing dignity and worth. This leads into the “belief that people have the freedom to change, make decisions, and assume responsibility for their own actions – particularly in regard to leisure” (Austin, 2009).

We don’t all perform at a world-class level in the leisure we do. The process of participating is as important as the outcome in most of our chosen leisure endeavors. How many people in the world would enjoy playing golf if we all felt we had to play like Tiger Woods? Or paint like Picasso? Or sing like Adele? We participate in leisure for the intrinsic feelings of joy, excitement, engagement, competence, and freedom of choice (Anderson & Heyne, 2012). The final outcome often doesn’t matter, but the act itself does!

Allowing Risk

For family members and care providers, it is only natural to want to protect and shield our loved ones from risk to keep them safe. Overprotection, however, can cause more harm than the risk itself, leading to apathy and disengagement by the person we are most trying to help. We need to find a balance between the individual’s right to dignity of risk and self-determination and our need to provide care and safety. We may need to provide support and assistance in making a decision, but we must also honor that decision — and as difficult as it may be, we have to accept that people have the right to make a decision that is different from our own.

By providing an environment that encourages dignity of risk and self- determination, we lay the groundwork for personal empowerment, hope, increased self-esteem, self-efficacy, and optimism for the person we want to help the most. Before jumping in to rescue your loved one, ask yourself whether this is a decision that they can make, even if it might be one you wouldn’t make yourself.

Back to bungee jumping — anyone interested? While I still choose no, Rick Hansen, a prominent Canadian disability advocate, chose yes. Check out this YouTube video of his jump to see how powerful the dignity of risk can be.


Anderson, L. and Heyne, L. (2012). Therapeutic recreation practice: A strengths approach. Venture Publishing, Inc., State College, PA.
Austin, David R. (2009). Therapeutic recreation processes and techniques, 6th Ed. Sagamore Publishing, Champaign, IL.
Parsons, C. (2009) Dignity of Risk: The right to self-governance for people with mental illness. Retrieved from:

Tricia Rachfall

Guest Blogger Bio

Tricia Rachfall, MEd, CTRS is a full-time faculty member and program co-coordinator in Therapeutic Recreation at Douglas College and is also a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist.  She is passionate about the right of recreation and leisure for all people, seeing an individual as a person first, and the value of experiential learning.  She loves to spend time with her family, walk her dog, golf, fish, read, travel, socialize, cook, and laugh!  Tricia has been involved with the Sea to Sky Aphasia Camp for 3 years.