By Courtney Tabor-Abbott

What is Self-Determination?

Students dancing Country-Western style with their teacherLife is a series of choices. From infancy up through our entire adulthood, we are making decisions nearly every moment of the day. Should I play with trains or play dough? Should I do my homework or play video games? Should I order that salad or those french fries? Where should I go to college? What kind of retirement plan do I need? Some of these choices are simple; others are far more complex. Some of them don’t matter much; others will shape the entire courses of our lives.

When we make these choices, we are practicing self determination. We make choices based on what we know about ourselves, what we like and what we think we need (i.e I really love French fries, but I probably need some vegetables in my diet today). We are using the ability to make decisions, assess options, set goals, and plan on how to achieve those goals. We make the choice about whether to eat the french fries or the salad. We decide whether to study for a test or binge watch Netflix instead. We choose which jobs to apply for, which schools to go to, whether or not to have children.

For people who are blind or visually impaired, self determination can often be particularly challenging. Many students with vision impairments are used to decisions being made for them by well-intentioned family members, teachers, and peers. Because so much information is typically absorbed through visual perception, students with vision impairments are often unaware of the various options available to them, whether these are the menu choices in the cafeteria or the career paths that exist in their communities. Sometimes, students with complex needs have difficulty communicating choices they would like to make, and need communication devices to assist them in making these decisions. When the awareness of choices, the control over decision making processes, and/or the ability to communicate are impacted, students can struggle to exhibit self determination, and this can negatively impact their confidence and self-esteem.

Teachers of students with vision impairments who have particular knowledge and understanding about the psychosocial implications of a vision impairment can provide instruction in the area of self determination so that students develop confidence and the ability to make choices, set goals, and advocate for themselves.

What does instruction in Self-Determination include?

Instruction in the area of self-determination can include the following:

  • Self-awareness: Who am I? What do I like to do? What am I good at and what things are hard for me? What is important to me?
  • Opinions, perspective, and critical thinking: What are my viewpoints on some issues that are important to me? Why do I feel that way? If my friend feels one way about something and I feel differently, is that okay?
  • Personal responsibility: taking charge of accomplishing tasks such as self-care, personal organization, etc. (i.e a student packing his own backpack for school).
  • Awareness of options: having an understanding of what choices exist in which situations (i.e clothing choices, recreation/leisure options, career awareness).
  • Understanding of disability: What does my disability mean for me? How is my vision, hearing, etc. affected by my disability? How would I describe my disability to someone else?

How does Self-Determination empower students?

Progress in the above areas of self-determination will empower students to:

  • Set goals: What do I want to accomplish? Is this a realistic goal for me? How can I accomplish this goal?
  • Use skills of self-advocacy: What are my needs? What are the tools that help me in school/work/play? How can I identify a situation where I should advocate for myself? How can I ask for help if needed, or decline help if I don’t need it?

Self-Determination and Transition

As students prepare to leave school and transition to adult life, special education teams develop transition plans to assist a student in moving to the next step. One of the important components of transition planning is that the student has a leading voice in the development of a transition goal and plan. Developing skills in the area of self-determination will allow a student to participate confidently in this process, and to make important choices about next steps after high school. For students whose disabilities limit their capacity to make these decisions independently, this does not minimize the importance of self-determination. Those who are unable to verbalize decisions about their ultimate transition goals can nonetheless make important choices that will enhance their well-being (i.e. What activities do I want to spend my time doing? What are things that make me happy that should be included in my day? Who are the important people in my life that I want to spend time with?)

Once students have moved beyond high school and into adult life, self-determination plays a key role in their independence, confidence, and well-being. Students who understand their own strengths and interests can use this knowledge when considering job opportunities. Students who understand their own disability and its related needs will be able to communicate these needs and self-advocate in their post-secondary education courses, in the workplace, and with the family members, friends, and staff that provide support in their daily lives. Self-determination requires confidence, but it also builds confidence. Students who are able to make their own choices, no matter how big or small these decisions, are empowered to take ownership of their lives and the activities they participate in. Students who understand themselves, their needs and desires, and how to communicate these to others are able to be active participants in their lives, rather than being acted upon by others. When students learn skills of self-determination, they become adults with self-respect and the keys to foster happiness in their own lives.

Pinterest collage for self-determination

Total Life Learning by Wendy Bridgeo,‎ Beth Caruso,‎ & Mary Zatta

Cover of Total Life Learning

The Total Life Learning curriculum was developed for students ages 3 to 22 who are blind, visually impaired including those students who have additional disabilities or are deafblind. The focus is on the development of life and career goals that enable student to maximize independence, self-determination, employability, and participation in the community.