Promoting the Self-Determination of Students with Severe Disabilities
Promoting the self-determination of students with disabilities has become best practice in special education, particularly in promoting more positive transitions from school to post-school life. Promoting self-determination means addressing skills, knowledge, and attitudes students will need to take more control over and responsibility for their lives.
While efforts to promote self-determination are in place, most of the methods, materials, and strategies they use do not adequately address the instructional needs of students with severe disabilities (Wehmeyer, 1998).
Wehmeyer, Agran, and Hughes (2000) surveyed 1,200 teachers of students with severe disabilities about their beliefs concerning self-determination and the barriers to providing instruction to promote this outcome. Some of barriers they identified are:
- Lack of student benefit from instruction in self-determination (42%)
- Insufficient training or information on promoting self-determination (41%)
- Lack of authority to provide instruction in this area (32%)
- More urgent need for instruction in other areas (29%)
- Lack of teacher knowledge of curricular/assessment materials and strategies (17%)
This digest addresses several issues raised by this list of barriers to promoting the self-determination of students with severe disabilities.
Can Students With Severe Disabilities Benefit From Instruction to Promote Self-Determination?
The most frequently identified barrier was that teachers did not believe students would benefit from such instruction. This reason is at the heart of a perception that people with severe disabilities cannot be self-determined because of the nature or extent of their impairment (Wehmeyer, 1998). However, such perceptions are based on misperceptions of self-determination as equivalent to being completely independent or autonomous and in absolute control of one's life.
Many students with severe disabilities will not be able to learn all the skills and knowledge needed to solve difficult problems. However, this is equally true for most areas in which students with severe disabilities receive instruction, a situation that has been dealt with by the principle of partial participation (Baumgart et al., 1982). This principle states that even if a student cannot do all steps in a task or activity, he or she can likely learn at least one step and maximize his or her participation.
There are portions of even complex tasks such as decision-making or problem-solving in which students with severe disabilities can participate, thus making them more self-determined. For example, the expression of a preference is an important part of decision-making and all people, independent of the severity of their disability, can express preferences and make choices.
There is also research to support that using self-directed learning strategies enhances students' autonomy and independence (Agran, 1997). Promoting skills that enable students with severe disabilities to become more independent, even if they are not fully independent, can improve quality of life (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1998). Students with severe disabilities can become more self-determined, even if they won't become fully autonomous.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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