What’s Self-Determination?

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"Self-Determination. Be Reasonable. Do it my way."

- seen printed on a post-it note on the desk of leading self-advocate in Holland, Michigan.


We all have a desire to lead self-determined lives…lives in which we have choice and opportunity, and the freedom to choose for ourselves.  It’s no different for people with disabilities.  Does your child experience self-determination in his or her life?   The opportunities for self-determination begin early.   The more experience we provide our children, the better prepared they will be for the choices of adulthood. 


What’s Self-Determination?


Self-Determination is a broad term that describes an individual’s right to make choices about their own lives, to have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else, and to speak and advocate for themselves.  Self-Determination is not the same as self-advocacy, although the two go hand-in-handFor more information on self-advocacy, click here:  The right to self-determination is not dependent on age or disability.   Children obviously need guidance in making choices for themselves, but need practice and experience with decision-making nonetheless.  Many people with disabilities may need the assistance of those who know and care about them to truly live a self-determined life, but they can and should have the same opportunities for decision-making as any other person without a disability.


What Parents Need to Know


5 principles of self-determination


1. Freedom:  The freedom to make basic choices in one’s life.  Even very young children can and should practice making choices.  For example: 

  1. Your 3 year old makes a choice between 2 kinds of cereals for breakfast, 2 different choices of toys to play with, or 2 choices of bedtime stories.

  2. Your 8 year old chooses between several types of food options (particularly at a restaurant!), ways to spend his/her free time, or friends with whom he/she prefers to spend time.

  3. Your 13 year old is included in the decision-making process of scheduling elective classes at junior high, or extracurricular activities in which to become involved. 
  4. Your 17 year old is included in the decision-making process regarding his/her transition from high school to the adult world.


2.  Authority:  Control over one’s life, particularly one’s finances.  There are many ways to assist a person with a disability to manage their own finances, or participate in the management of their money.  For example:

  1. Wells Fargo banking has created a free interactive money management educational program, designed to meet the needs of a variety of abilities and ages.  Find it at: http://www.handsonbanking.org/ 

  2. There are a variety of technologies available to assist with money management, even for those who have limited math skills.  One example:  http://www.readingmadeez.com/products/TalkingCheckbook.html


3.  Support:  Organizing the people who support you to live your life, in a way that makes sense for you.  Many people with disabilities need support from others to do the things that are important to/for them.   Allowing the individual to have as much control as possible over who provides the support and how they provide it is crucial to self-determination. 

4.  Responsibility:  With freedom and authority comes responsibility.   Don’t let your child’s disability stand in the way of taking responsibility in ways that make sense for him/her!  Disability should never be an excuse.

5.  Confirmation:  Proof of your importance, the role you play in the lives of others.  When we realize that we matter, our lives take on a whole new meaning and significance.  Your child needs it as much as you do!


Before you leap to the conclusion that self-determination is an impossible concept for your child, we encourage you to learn more.  Self-determination will (and should!) look different for every individual.  Self-determination is an unending destination, with many baby steps in the journey.  Self-determination begins at birth and, with support and opportunity, can carry your child to a more self-determined life as an adult with a disability.


To learn more:

I'm Determined - Virginia Dept. of Education


Center for Self-Determination


Fact Sheet:  Summary of Self-Determination


National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT)


PACER’s National Parent Center on Transition & Employment – Developing self-determination skills, mentoring and family support


TARGET: Texas Autism Resource Guide for Effective TeachingSelf-Determination Strategies (pdf)


Texas Self Determination Policy Team