By definition, choice is an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities. When people are allowed to make choices, they feel empowered. Conversely, when people are denied the freedom of choice, they become disenfranchised. The exclusion that results from not being able to make independent decisions applies to individuals and groups.
An example of an individual case that comes to mind involves the end-of-life choice (also known as assisted suicide). In most states, euthanasia is illegal, but there is a strong movement to allow people the choice to end their life in cases where terminal illness and suffering are inescapable. In a recent Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) special on end-of-life choice, author of When My Time Comes, Diane Rehm shared her experience of watching her husband of 52 years die from a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. In 2014, John Rehm wanted to die because the illness took away his quality of life, leaving him unable to perform independent functions such as standing, walking, feeding, or bathing himself. The state of Maryland prohibited assisted suicide, so his doctor was forbidden to help him end his life. The terminally ill Rehm refused food and water and subsequently died 10 days later. In the program, Diane Rhem suggested that there is freedom and beauty in talking about death. When choices are denied and honest communication is limited, people are forced to obfuscate…go underground, so to speak, to get their desired result. When we tell people that we don’t want to talk about something, we limit their power and ability to choose. How do we help people to discuss things that are difficult and speak up for change and improvement? The answer is to create an accepting atmosphere where there is no fear of judgment, retaliation, or punishment.
A group that illustrates the above point is the LGBTQIA community. The term, “in the closest”, refers to individuals who have not publically disclosed their sexual preferences or gender identities because of judgment or abuse. In a 2015 commentary by Kenneth Ross, LGBT: Moving Towards Equality, that appeared in the World Economics Forum, the author states that “Almost 2.8 billion people are living in countries where identifying as gay could lead to imprisonment, corporal punishment, or even death. In stark contrast, only 780 million people are living in countries where same-sex marriage or civil unions are a legal right.”
Another example of a disenfranchised group can be seen in voting rights practices. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were latitudes developed to enable people to vote safely, including early voting, mail-in ballots, and extended voting hours. As pandemic restrictions are slowly lifting, so are the voting latitudes. People who will likely be unable to vote in states that decide to return to pre-pandemic voting practices include: those who are unable take leave from work to vote; those with no transportation to election polls; and physically-limited voters.
Absence of choice creates disenfranchisement and inequities. We can help people make difficult choices by:
1. examining our biases about the choices of others,
2. being open to gaining new perspectives on unfamiliar or uncomfortable issues,
3. acknowledging the difficulty in making certain choices,
4. allowing a safe, nonjudgmental environment for people to act and speak freely.
These behaviors are the best way to encourage choice. There is freedom and power in the ability to make choices, no matter how difficult those are choices may be.