Christian Horizons’ Vision is that: “People with exceptional needs belong to communities in which their God-given gifts are valued and respected.” This Vision is supported by seven unique Service Principles (you can find the list of these principles here). These Service Principles describe the ways in which Christian Horizons supports people. This is the second in a series of posts that takes a look at these service principles, to learn how they are important in serving others whether in social services or as part of faith communities.

Christian Horizons’ third Service Principle is: the Right to Self-Determination, 

“We believe that all people want to have choice and control in their lives. We recognize that persons with exceptional needs are at risk for not having their right to self-determination respected; therefore, we will respect and will follow each person’s direction for their life, help access information to assist in making informed decisions, and foster independence in ways that are meaningful to the person.”

This Service Principle relates to a CBC interview with John Vanier in which he discusses the importance of asking those whom we serve, “what do you think?” in addition to the question “what do you want?” This encourages each person to find his or her own voice.  Vanier goes on to describe the connection between trust and love. Love is often felt when we trust someone enough to make decisions for themselves.

This is meaningful to me because my own faith was nurtured when a member of my church encouraged me to serve in a toddlers’ ministry several years ago. At the time, it was clear that she had more faith in my abilities and what God could do through them than I did! I resisted at the time, but looking back I am thankful for her persistent encouragement which showed me and others that there was much more to me than my disability. It led to an enduring connection with my church, a deeper faith that continues to grow and many more opportunities for ministry within my church and beyond.

With respect to the right to self-determination, I further appreciate the sentiments of Jeff McNair:

“Certainly care providers should not be cavalier in allowing just anyone access to an individual with impairments. However, people should also not be prohibited from living real lives through equally cavalier overprotection. If nothing ‘bad’ ever happens to you, you can be sure you are not living a real life” (Almost Friends p.31).

I was introduced to the wonderful sport of water tubing at Christian Horizons’ Family Retreat. It looked like so much fun and I really wanted to try it but I was utterly shocked when the organizers let me go! It was the most exhilarating experience I ever had, and I continued to repeat this experience for several summers. Unfortunately, one day the water was rougher than I expected and I fell off the tube. In all my determination to keep the adventure going I refused to let go and I broke two fingers.

When it happened I was not as concerned about my awesome extreme sports injury as I was concerned that others would panic because I, a vulnerable person, was injured. It was such a blessing that my friends were committed to the principle of self-determination. They were compassionate but they did not overreact.

In contrast, over-protective instincts of the ER nurse were evident when she said, “What were they thinking letting you go tubing?” I promptly informed her that tubing was not about what my friends thought. Rather, I chose to go tubing because it was an incredible experience in years past and in fact it was incredible until the very last second when I broke my fingers. I also let her know that tubing was not the issue. My improper dismount was the problem. After the ER nurse and I came to an understanding I realized how grateful I was that my friends afforded me the dignity of risk, and respect for my own decisions, whether or not these decisions led to optimal results.

Chantal tubing

Chantal tubing at the Christian Horizons Family Retreat

The right to self-determination can be difficult to implement because, out of a sense of compassion, we generally want to save people we care about from any destructive choices they might make. With respect to people who have exceptional needs, these positive intentions are compounded by the societal notion that people with exceptional needs should be protected. Furthermore, if someone is unable to communicate clearly or consistently it can be more difficult to know their direction for their lives or what they find meaningful. If one’s exceptional needs limit their variety of experiences and opportunities, others may be inclined to question if they are truly qualified to determine the direction for their lives. Related to this, it is important to ensure access to relevant information so that people have the resources they may need to make informed choices. Yet, it can be just as difficult to determine how much information or experience is necessary to make an informed choice.

Whether one makes choices which are consistent with their life goals or not, on the basis of abundant or limited information, is rarely if ever determined by whether they have exceptional needs. All people are prone to making choices that others might consider “destructive,” based on limited information or factors we choose to ignore. This is because we all have a tendency to prefer the desires of the flesh as opposed to godly desires. Furthermore, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not God’s ways. Yet God, in his infinite wisdom, gives us all the gift of free will. There are times I wish for greater choice and freedom and other times I wonder why God does not make the choice for me. Ultimately, I think God knows that the benefits of risk and the opportunity for learning and growth that these may present outweigh the consequences of “compliance.”

When we do not make the best choice we may become more aware of the discrepancy between our own ways and the ways of God, and learn to trust Him more. Whether or not we have exceptional needs, each of us benefits from seeking God’s will every day. We could all learn to rely more on His wisdom, rather than expecting the people around us to save us.

How can you or your church allow people with and without exceptional needs the dignity of risk and practice of self-determination? Can you get to know people with exceptional needs enough that you can understand what they might find meaningful? How might you resist the urge to be overprotective, allowing them to seek God’s direction for their life? What has this looked like in your own life?

Hey, would you like to help support people to have new experiences like water tubing in an environment that supports the right to self-determination and where we can learn to hear God’s will for our lives together? Check out opportunities to serve as part of the Christian Horizons Family Retreat here:

About Chantal Huinink

Chantal lives in Kitchener, Ontario, and has served with Christian Horizons for more than four years in various capacities. She is an experienced motivational speaker, social justice and accessibility advocate. Chantal has her Masters of Divinity and Social Work from Wilfrid Laurier Universityhas and a BA in psychology and human development from the University of Guelph.

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