Self-Determination: More than Just a Set of Skills

Updated: Nov 12

By Charles Walters

This article was originally published in MCIE's Inclusion Catalyst. Click here to get The Inclusion Catalyst.

What do you think of when you hear the term “self-determination?”

Perhaps the first thing that comes to your mind involves the specific skills that we have come to associate with self-determined behavior. These are things like self-advocacy, problem solving, and choice making, to name a few. In this reflex to associate self-determination with observable behavior, we are encountering the genius of scholars, advocates, and educators who have worked to bring complex theories of self-determination into something with practical application within educational settings. However, as you dive into this article, I invite you to join me in rediscovering a self-determination that is about more than skills.

I remember so clearly how struck I was by the early research that was done on student-led Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. In short, much of this work has called for a shift from teacher-led IEP meetings to meetings in which students are prepared to lead and inform conversations about the development of their IEP. In doing so, students are provided a platform to learn and practice self-determination skills. I was convinced that in the practice of supporting students to lead their own IEP meetings, we could transform their educational experience. Based on this conviction, I spent years tirelessly pursuing the cause of student-led IEP meetings. I used existing curricula and developed my own lessons to work with students, and trained many others to do the same.

To my surprise, I found that for many students, meaningful opportunities to learn and practice self-determination skills in IEP meetings continued to come alongside a day-to-day life in school that remained relatively unchanged—special education teachers continued to communicate to general education teachers about student accommodations, few choices existed in the school day, and students remained in self-contained special education classrooms. I also found that, regardless of how well things went with students leading their IEP meetings, many schools choose to discontinue the practice and return to teacher-led meetings.

Through these observations, I learned a lesson that I wasn’t expecting: self-determination needs to be seen as something far more than just another educational intervention that we can add into the lives of youth as we see fit. It has to be allowed to permeate everything that we do. As it turns out, the reason for this is all around us.

The lives of disabled people are contextualized by a history and a present that has largely denied them the right to direct their own lives. Educators may contribute to this regrettable truth in everything from teacher-led IEP meetings, in which transition-age student voices take up 3% of the meeting (Martin et al., 2006), to our recommendations for parents to seek the removal of student rights through guardianship (Jameson et al., 2015). Given this sort of context, from its earliest applications to disabled youth, self-determination was asserted as a fundamental human right (Wehmeyer, 1997).

After decades of research and practice, we know more than ever about the importance of self-determination to the quality of life and postsecondary outcomes of disabled students. As such, we can and should continue to look to interventions in self-determination skill building as worthwhile and necessary ventures. As we do, however, we also must work to recognize the implications of a self-determination that is more than just teaching a set of skills; we must recognize the calling that comes from knowing self-determination as a human right. This point of recognition calls us to the common cause of actively resisting and disrupting imbalances in power that impede that right.

"...we must recognize the calling that comes from knowing self-determination as a human right."