What does it mean to have dignity? Or to be treated as a person who has value?

Imagine going to the grocery store and having people whisper or point. Imagine someone coming up and asking if you should be there—or worse, asking you to leave because your presence is making other people “uncomfortable.” Maybe it’s something as small as someone ignoring you or dismissing your opinion, fear, or concern.

These might seem extreme, but each of us can probably think of a time when we also weren’t treated like we mattered. For people with disabilities or living with mental illness these experiences are often more common and magnified.

Self-determination, social justice, and social inclusion all affect the dignity of persons with disabilities or mental illness. Like every other human being, they deserve dignity and respect. Dignity means being treated with honor, integrity, and courtesy. It means being treated the way any of us want to be treated. The Golden Rule is universal.

For example, in 1948, the United Nations set a common standard through the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It determined that fundamental human rights should be protected, and member nations were charged to educate and promote respect for these rights and freedoms. The standard has been translated into more than 500 languages.

Article I of the Declaration states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It also asserts that everyone is entitled to the rights and freedoms set forth in the document, without distinction of any kind. But it wasn’t until much more recently that the needs and rights of vulnerable people with disabilities were specifically recognized.

In 2006, the United Nations finally went further with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international human-rights treaty. Its purpose is to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities and underscores their right to be included in the community with equal choices and full participation.  

The Royal College of Nursing, the largest professional association and union for nursing staff in the world, defines dignity as such, “Dignity is concerned with how people feel, think and behave in relation to the worth or value of themselves and others. To treat someone with dignity is to treat them as being of worth, in a way that is respectful of them as valued individuals.”

A person’s dignity is formed from, and dependent upon, relationships with other human beings. When we use respectful language and gestures, when we look someone in the eye and see them, when we stop and really listen, we promote dignity. Often persons with developmental disabilities, mental illness, or other disabilities overhear negative comments made about them. These references can have a profound, harmful effect on the dignity of the person being discussed. 

But it isn’t just negative words—sometimes silence or ignoring or excluding sends a powerful message: “You are not important. You are not worthy.” It’s an all too common blow to a person’s feeling of self-worth in a world that is already full of barriers. It doesn’t have to be this way, however. Often, if we just take a bit of time and slow down, so we have a moment to listen and attend to a person, we can make a difference for them in that moment.

In addition to interactions with others, self-determination has an effect on one’s dignity. Being able to make one’s own decisions, to the extent possible, has a direct correlation with dignity. People living with disabilities or mental illness can be included in discussions about care, wardrobe, friends, housing, employment, and finances when appropriate.

Not surprisingly, adaptive clothing can have a positive effect on dignity for a person with a disability. Those who have trouble dressing independently may find that the use of Velcro or magnets, rather than buttons and zippers, can make all the difference between dependence and independence. Also, adaptive clothing that is both functional and stylish can give the wearer a lift in spirits. 

Even for someone with cognitive impairment, being given some choice and options can be powerfully positive. Whether it’s being given a choice between outfits or activities, including someone in the decisions that affect them sends a message that they, and their feelings, are valuable.

Closely linked to dignity is social justice. Equal opportunities in all aspects of society contribute to feelings of self-worth and dignity for people with disabilities. This includes the workplace where adaptations can be made so we can take full advantage of everyone’s talents and gifts at work.

In the workplace, or otherwise, social inclusion also contributes to dignity. Every person should be respected and acknowledged so that they can contribute to conversations. Methods for expressing themselves might be different from what we consider standard communication. For example, someone might take more time to express or might use a touchpad to share feelings and ideas. However communication happens, it’s important that each one of us, regardless of ability or disability, has a chance to be heard.

The nationwide advocacy group, The Arc, believes that “people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are entitled to the respect, dignity, equality, safety, and security accorded to other members of society, and are equal before the law.” 

We at North Coast Community Homes agree! That’s why we believe that a safe, comfortable, and affordable home should be within reach for everyone – especially Ohio’s most vulnerable. We integrate our homes into the community so that a disability or mental illness isn’t something hidden away. Instead, each individual is seen as beautiful, unique, and worthy of a home. This, in addition to self-determination, social justice, and social inclusion, helps NCCH residents feel a sense of self-worth and dignity.