Thursday, July 15, 2010

Flying the Standard Part Three: restriction vs safeguarding

This blog posting is the third instalment relating to the current review in Australia of the National Standards for Disability Services.  This posting looks at a second big example of problematic language within the current Standards - the phrase ‘least restrictive way’. 
The Standards say that:
Each person with a disability receives a service which is designed to meet...his or her individual needs and personal goals.
How good does that sound?  Pretty good actually. The only problem is that I've taken a phrase out and replaced it with some dots.  Let's now put that phrase back in, and look at what the Standards actually say:

Each person with a disability receives a service which is designed to meet, in the least restrictive way, his or her individual needs and personal goals.
What a shame.  Without the bit in red, this would be an unequivocal, potent and affirming statement, but for the fact that it’s been blighted in the middle by five words – “in the least restrictive way”.  The problem with this wording is that it puts the possibility of restrictive practice on the table.  It suggests that a person’s freedom might indeed need to be restricted.  Put more simply, the use of this wording gives service agencies the permission (regardless of whether they choose to act on it) to think about and apply restrictive practice.

In this way, the Standards, however unintentionally, reduce the horizon of what is possible in people’s lives, because every Australian living with disability who comes into contact with formal services is entering a system that is entertaining the possibility that the person’s freedom might have to be restricted. Double Ouch!

I can imagine some readers of this blog wishing to remind me that there are people living with disability who live in very dramatic circumstances where there is a greater risk of harm to themselves or others, and that the other people in that person's life, or service agencies, need to act decisively to manage the situation.  I understand that pressure.  But if our main response to such situations is to apply restriction to manage the problem, then we may indeed be reducing the immediate risk of self-harm, harm to others, material damage etc, but are we actually doing anything to support that person to move on from such distressing circumstances?  I have encountered and worked with people whose circumstances have resulted in their being restricted for years, without ever being given an authentic, sustained opportunity to move on.
In this regard, the current wording of the Standards has not helped, because the Standards have endorsed the possibility of restriction in the first place.

We have to move away from such language.  

Therefore, instead of focusing on the idea of restriction the Standards could be reframed to focus on the idea of safeguarding.  Where restrictive practice is service-focused, with an emphasis on managing a ‘problem’, safeguarding is person-focused and demands careful attention to rights-based lifestyle goals such as choice and citizenhood and the associated support that someone with heightened vulnerability might need to succeed.

If you think about it, this isn’t a particularly radical idea.  For all of us, we live our lives where we encounter risk, and our habit is to respond with safeguards, so that we can get on with life.   

A mundane example is crossing the road, which brings with it a number of risk considerations, given that roads are used by fast-moving heavy pieces of metal.  If we wanted to stay absolutely safe, we might choose simply to not cross the road. However, making this decision might close us off to the opportunities that lie on the other side.  Instead, we consider how we might cross the road in the safest possible way - finding a place to cross where we can see the flow traffic, then waiting for a gap in the traffic, then crossing quickly.  We might also use a place where crossing is facilitated.  Such practices are examples of safeguarding.  As we grow into our lives we learn a range of techniques for crossing the road as safely as possible.  By applying these techniques we safely manage the risk of crossing the road and get on with our lives.

The point here is that if we think about safeguards rather than restrictions it may make it more likely that the support a person receives takes her/him towards a more ordinary valued life rather than a life characterised by containment and diversion.

In which case, I’d be keen to see the phrase restrictive practice removed from the Standards, and replaced by something more affirming, such as the following:

Each person living with disability is supported, including the thoughtful use of safeguards where these are needed, to move towards a life of choice and citizenhood.
What do you think? Can you do better?  Post a comment with your own suggestions.  If you feel strongly about the importance of safeguarding rather than restriction, do make your views known because the Standards are being reviewed by government right now.  You have until 18 July, so click here to go to the government website.


  1. Very good point about the use of language Robbie. Thanks for the heads up on the date.
    Vicki Humphries

  2. Hi Robbi

    how about

    "Each person living with disability receives support which is directed by the person with disability to meet his or her individual needs and personal goals."

    A statement of restrictive practice or safeguards is violates Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. If a person makes a 'risky' decision then this decision can only be challenged by a legally competent authority.

    I agree with your construction of safeguards, my problem is that for many service providers it will be read and/or implemented as 'least restrictive'.

    Another thought, not mine; the whole concept of standards is restrictive. The UN Convention sets the 'standard' and anything that lessens this (as standards must, as by setting benchmarks and key performance indicators they by definition restrict, what is their purpose otherwise) cannot be implemented.

    Standards are a clumsy and bureaucrat means of trying to manage a dysfunctional system. All they do is restrict people with disability.
    No matter how we try to 'fix' the system it will always work against people with disability until the power balance is change - from government funders setting the outputs with service providers; to people with disability self-directing their support and setting their outcomes! Only then ...

    Thanks for the conversation


    Mark Pattison