Self-Determination for Students with Disabilities
Think how you would react if other people constantly controlled your life, deciding what you should wear, where you should go, what career you should pursue, and what type of housing and roommates you should have. Beginning at a very young age, children typically begin to express their wishes, and they learn that they have a right to act on those wishes. (For example, have you ever tried to convince a 3-year-old that the two articles of clothing she selected to wear do not match?) But despite good intentions by professionals and parents, many students and adults with disabilities have been denied opportunities to make their own life decisions. Reversing this situation has become a goal for the field (for example, Martin, Van Dycke, Christensen, Greene, Gardner, Et Lovett, 2006; Wehymeyer, 2007). One way self-determination can occur is for students to actively participate in or lead their IEP meetings and other planning activities.
When students lead their IEP meetings, they learn to think and advocate for themselves (Mason, McGahee-Kovac, & Johnson, 2004). They can learn to do this beginning at a very early age. For example, elementary students might have the role of introducing their parents to the team and describing to team members what they have been learning in school. Students in middle school might explain their disabilities and the impact of those disabilities, share their strengths, and discuss accommodations needed. In high school, students might lead the entire conference, working to ensure that the IEP and transition plan reflect their preferences and plans for the future. Specific student roles can vary, and students should be prepared for participating so they know the process and ways they contribute to it. Further, general education teachers find that students who actively participate in their IEP meetings have better skills for interacting with adults, better understanding of their special needs, greater awareness of resources available to help them, and more willingness to accept responsibility for themselves (Test et al., 2004).
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