They Denied Him His Coffee. They Were Wrong.

You can make decisions in your own life, so why shouldn’t a man be able to get a cup of coffee?

Fred really liked coffee.  I learned that very quickly.  Working part-time at an apartment complex on the weekends, I came in every Friday night at 10:30pm and worked until 2:30pm on Saturday.  Each Saturday morning, Fred would wake up, come out the living room, and politely ask for coffee.  After a few weeks, I decided to show him how to use the coffee-maker, so he didn’t even have to ask me for coffee.  He was a quick learner, and each Saturday he would get up and immediately go make coffee.  I’d watch him throughout the day and he would typically drink no more than 1-2 cups of coffee in about an eight-hour period.  He did not have any dietary restrictions, so I didn’t think much about it.

One morning when I came in to work, I read the Staff Communication Log (where pertinent information is communicated regarding persons served), and there was a memo detailing Fred’s “behavior” of going out into the street.  The apartment complex was near a busy street and, apparently, he was going out into the street and sitting in the road.  The memo detailed what employees needed to do if that happened and how to use physical restraint if necessary to keep Fred safe.  After talking with a couple of employees, I found multiple points of view on the subject: one employee said that she wasn’t getting paid enough to deal with that kind of high-risk behavior.  Another employee stated that Fred needed to be put on more medications so that he would not run into the street.  People had clearly identified that Fred running into the street was dangerous, both to Fred and to the employee when they went out to get him.

I wanted to learn more about the situation, in large part because I had never seen Fred go out into the street on my shift!  After looking into it further, I was shocked with what I found.  A few weeks back, the employees working with Fred during the week had decided that he was drinking too much coffee and it was not good for him.  It had caffeine in it, and Fred should not be having caffeine, they determined.  From that point on, any time Fred would ask for coffee, he was told no, and that he could not have it because it was bad for him.  Fred would then continue asking for coffee, and when that didn’t work, he eventually went outside and refused to come back in.  He figured out that employees would then give him coffee to get him to come inside.  This strategy worked sometimes but not always.  Fred then tried a different strategy: he ran out into the street, sat down, and refused to get up until the employee allowed him to have coffee.  In these situations, employees were scared and would immediately agree to give him coffee.  The only way to get coffee, Fred learned, was to escalate the situation into a crisis where he could then get his “demands” met.

Situations like this are not uncommon in my experience.  I worked with another person who was blind and the employees working with him would hide his cigarettes and ash tray because they felt smoking was bad for him.  Employees believe they know what is best for a person and make decisions on their behalf.  When this happens, however, the person is robbed of their right to control their own life and make decisions that aren’t always the best.  Regardless of disability, have you ever met anyone that smoked that didn’t know it was bad for them?  What about someone who drinks coffee every day even though it may have caffeine?  Pretty common, I’m sure.  The concept in play here is what is called dignity of risk.  Janet Shouse, the parent of a child with disabilities, defines dignity of risk as “the right to take risks when engaging in life experiences, and the right to fail in those activities.”1

We typically take dignity of risk for granted daily.  My doctor told me to eat healthy yet every day I can eat whatever I want.  He also told me to quit playing football because, sadly, I’m getting to old for that kind of activity.  Despite my doctor’s advice, I still go out from time to time to play football at the park.  I’d say I pull or muscle or injure something about 75% of the time.  I would be pretty angry if my wife hid my car keys, so I couldn’t drive to the park to play football – note: I think this will be coming soon.  Just like Fred being able to have coffee if he wants it, I can do things that other people believe are not good for me.  That’s dignity of risk: let me make decisions for myself and sometimes fail.

Back to Fred, I brought up my opinion on what was happening and was frustrated even further when the other employees were blaming me for Fred’s behavior!  Since I was giving him coffee on Saturday mornings, that was making him even more upset during the week when he was not allowed coffee.  We should all agree, it seemed, to withhold coffee from Fred because it is bad for him.  While that kind of thinking is coming from a place of genuine concern for his well-being, it is a tremendous disservice to him as a human being with rights.  You can make decisions in your own life, so why shouldn’t a man be able to get a cup of coffee?