Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Self-Determination for Persons with Disabilities: Choice, Risk, and Dignity

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Self-Determination for Persons with Disabilities: Choice, Risk, and Dignity

Article excerpt

Self-determination is the ability of a person to consider options and make appropriate choices regarding residential life, work, and leisure time. Teaching self-determination skill s to people with disabilities is receiving increased attention for several masons. First, there is a growing philosophical base of support for providing choice opportunities to people with disabilities. Professional literature clearly indicates that normalization and quality of life are closely associated with one's ability to choose from a range of life options (Blatt, 1987; Kishi, Teelucksingh, Zollers, Park-Lee, & Meyer, 1988; Mann, Harmoni, & Power, 1989; O'Brien, 1987). The most capable person, restricted from exercising free choice in critical areas, may not have a fulfilled life.

Second, although limited, there are a number of empirical studies documenting that people with profound and multiple disabilities can learn to make choices (Dattilo & Rusch, 1985; Realon, Favell, & Lowerre, 1990). Studies such as these have the potential to significantly alter training approaches for people whose daily lives are highly regimented and controlled by professionals. In addition, opportunities to make even the most rudimentary choices (e.g., what to eat) can meaningfully increase the quality of life.

Third, follow-up studies of special education graduates have produced disappointing findings. Researchers have reported that the majority of youth with disabilities have not made a successful transition from school to life as a young adult in the community. It is likely that people with disabilities have acquired basic skills in school. The problem, however, may be their inability to selfdirect the use of these skills when confronted with several options in functional contexts.

This article presents a rationale for teaching self-determination. Further, we present a framework for expanding the choice repertoire of persons with disabilities, based on systematic analyses of risks and benefits.


As noted earlier, self-determination is spurred by a growing philosophical base. Many proponents of normalization advocate for full integration of persons with disabilities in natural community settings (Brown et al., 1989; Stainback, Stainback, & Forest, 1989). These settings are inherently less predictable and harder to control than more restrictive settings. They contain many choices and demand prudent decisions. As we increasingly enable all persons with disabilities to live, go to school, work, and spend leisure time in community settings, we must place greater emphasis on developing self-determination. Wolfensberger ( 1972, p. 238) stated:

We should assist a person to become capable of

meaningfully choosing for himself among those

normative options that are considered moral and

those that are not. If a person is capable of

meaningful choice, he must also risk the


In a now classic article, Perske (1972) identified a vital connection between choice, risk, and dignity. People without disabilities, Perske noted, are faced with many decisions that involve some degree of physical or emotional risk. To deny the right to make choices in an effort to protect the person with disabilities from risk, he argued, is to diminish their human dignity. Blatt (1987) also argued eloquently for the rights of persons with disabilities, including their fight to choice and risk. Blatt stated that freedom to make choices, even choices that may result in harm, is a freedom that most people cherish. Freedom of choice is one of the highest American ideals. Why then, asked Blatt, should we hold a different set of ideals and values for people with disabilities?

Research on the abilities of people with intellectual disabilities to make decisions and solve problems supports the efficacy of teaching selfdetermination. …

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