Issues and Education: Dignity of Risk

By June Converse.

What is the riskiest thing you’ve ever done? Scuba diving? Skydiving? Driving on the highway in a large city? Choosing one job over another? In the Universal Design blog, I used the term “dignity of risk”. While intuitively I knew what the term meant, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding.

The fact is we all face risk every day. Most of us are given the opportunity to take the risk or not. I chose to jump out of a plane. My husband chose not to jump. In both scenarios we were afforded the right to choose. We were treated with the dignity to decide for ourselves the risk we were willing to accept.

Dignity of risk is “the principle of allowing an individual the dignity afforded by risk-taking, with subsequent enhancement of personal growth and quality of life.”1

Most of us take dignity of risk for granted.

The American Dream

This is going to seem hokey, but I wanted to give you a definition for the American Dream:

The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American Dream is achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, rather than by chance.

I would like to make one addition and highlight a few items:

The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into or what perceived disabilities they have, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American Dream is achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, rather than by chance.

The American Dream embodies dignity of risk.

The Dream Versus The Reality

In many of our classrooms, especially physical education, children who are visually impaired are not able to choose to participate. These children are literally put on the sidelines. They are marginalized and often ostracized. Sure, there is risk associated with a student with a visual impairment on the ice rink with a hockey puck. But there is also risk for the sighted player on the ice rink with a hockey puck. The risk is simply different. Each student should get to decide the level of risk they are willing to sacrifice for success.

In most PE classes, the teacher is not coaching the next Michael Phelps or Simone Biles. The goal in a PE class is “to encourage self-determination and to encourage all students to be part of the lesson”.2 PE is about experience and body awareness. PE is not so much about mastery as it is about movement and teamwork. No student should be on the sidelines. Certainly, no student should be forced to be on the sidelines.

Athlete and coach on a surf board riding a way. The coach is on the back of the board holding the waist of the athlete in front. The athlete is wearing a blue life jacket. The tip of the surfboard is pointed up out of the water.

Why Dignity of Risk Is Important

Dignity of risk is not a concept limited to people who are visually impaired. Dignity of risk should be a universal construct. You. Me. Your Neighbor. The Sighted. The Visually Impaired. Dignity should be expected.

  •   When we are able to make our own choices, our sense of self is reinforced.
  •   When we are not allowed to choose, our human dignity is devalued.
  •   When we are able to make our own choices, we are learning independence and self-determination.

Sense of self, independence, self-determination, and human dignity are critical for everyone – regardless of perceived ability.

Perceived Ability

Have you ever been told you can’t do something? Have you ever been told you can’t do something without the chance to try? Sure, I will likely never climb Mt. Everest. But I can put on hiking spikes and try. No one has the right to tell me I can’t.

Recently, I spoke with Andrew who is visually impaired and he said, “I might not be able to do it. But I want to suffer through the experience and decide that for myself.” This is dignity of risk.

Andrew had been denied his opportunity to play on the soccer team because the coach perceived him as unable. Angry but undaunted, Andrew went outside the PE class and is now on the US National Blind Ice Hockey team. I can’t help but wonder what Andrew’s classmates would have learned if he had been able to participate. What perceptions would change if he had been able to stand in the goal in his PE class?

I spoke with a former Camp Abilities counselor and asked him if there was anything he thought a student who is visually impaired should not do? He said, “I’ve never – not once – told a child no. We find a way. We can always find a way.”

Perceived ability is just that – perceived. An antonym for perceived is “overlooked”. How many students who are visually impaired are overlooked because of misconceptions about ability or risk?

The Risk of Risk

I’m not going to write to you and pretend there is no additional risk associated with students who are visually impaired. What I am going to tell you is that most of the risks can be reduced if not alleviated completely.

Resources abound for modifications and adaptations. But the best way to reduce risk is by talking to the student. Who knows better how to provide the support than the person needing support? Your students know where to find information. Your students know the level of risk they are comfortable managing. I understand a teacher’s concern about increased injury or increased liability. But balance those concerns with …

  •   Increased self-esteem
  •   Decreased health concerns (more movement = less sedentary = better overall health)
  •   Increased understanding and acceptance by peers
  •   Decreased ostracization and the potential for bullying
  •   INCREASED DIGNITY FOR ALL – the American Dream

2 athletes practicing their judo skills on a blue mat while a coach wearing a full judo uniform uses hand over hand guidance to help the athletes position themselves correctly.

Reasonable Risk

Our goal at Camp Abilities and in Adapted Physical Education is to change “no, you can’t” into “let’s figure out how”. We want our children to be able to participate in any and all sports. But we must be reasonable. Reasonable risk requires the parent, the child and the professional consider the situation carefully. For example, a child with a detached retina, a shunt, athletic induced asthma, or other diagnosis must consider those conditions before participating. The goal is to find the path so that all children can participate to the “maximum extent possible but limit extreme risk to their pre-existing contraindication.”

Reasonable risk requires us to treat each child as an individual worthy of our time, effort and ingenuity.

Dignity of Risk is not suggesting we put children in harm’s way. Dignity of Risk is simply asking we be intentional and steadfast in our desire to allow all children to participate at the maximum extent possible. Humans are amazingly adaptive and creative. There is a reasonable way.

Athlete swinging on a tire swing in mid air. Athlete is in the middle of an obstacle course with lots of obstacles hanging in the background. She is reaching to grab the next obstacle while she swings from the tire.

Impact on Peers

We learn from each other and we also encourage each other to push further, work harder, achieve more. Imagine the lessons peers can learn when we include children with visual impairments. Those lessons go way beyond a PE classroom.

Dignity is about showing respect for the worthiness of others. Dignity is worth the risk.

For more support please refer to the following:

  1. Your student


1 ”Impediments to Applying the ‘Dignity of Risk’ Principle”, Australian Journal of Aging, by J. Ibrahim and M. Davis (2012)

2 “Promoting Self-Determination for Students with Visual Impairments: A Review of the Literature”, Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness by J.L. Cmar and K. Markoski (2019)


~submitted by June Converse