wooden puzzle of a rooster



Self-Determination has become part of best practices in education and positively makes a difference in students’ lives, in particular for students with disabilities. How do we, as educators, promote the development of self-determined behaviours in our students so they can have better life outcomes? In this chapter, we will clarify the meaning of self-determination for people with significant disabilities by defining it, understanding some of the misinterpretations, and looking at some strategies that promote the development of self-determined behaviour of students with significant disabilities. We will also be providing some resources that support instruction.

Constructs of Self-Determination


Self-determination “encompasses concepts such as free will, civil and human rights, freedom of choice, independence, personal agency, self-direction, and individual responsibility.”1 To have a better understanding of the different meanings of self-determination, we will briefly look at the various constructs of self-determination from different disciplines.

Political Sense of Self-Determination


Self-determination was first mentioned in 1918 by President Wilson Woodrow at the end of World War I. He referred to self-determination as a nation’s or a country’s right to self-governance. It is sometimes understood to mean the same as independence and freedom. The political meaning of self-determination is the most common use of the term. (Wehmeyer, M.L. 1998, 1999).

Psychological Sense of Self-Determination


In the 1940s with the development of the field of personality psychology, a new meaning to self-determination is given. Self-Determination Theory studies human motivation and explains that our actions are caused by two underlying reasons: either a person freely wants to do something (autonomous or self-determination), or they are pressured by someone else to do so (external to the person or other determination).  (Wehmeyer, M.L. 1999)

Self-Determination as a Fundamental Right


In 1972, Bengt Nirje wrote about the rights of people with severe disabilities. He called for a wide range of actions that would enable people with severe disabilities to have better control of their lives and destinies, including choices and personal activities, education, independence, participation in decisions, and information upon which to make a decision and solve problems. According to Nirje, self-determination equates with the respect and dignity to which all people are entitled. Robert Perske, an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities also calls for the opportunity for people with disabilities to experience the “dignity of risk.” (Ward, M.W., 2005) . According to Ward, too many people continue to feel that individuals with severe disabilities need to be taken care of in safe, secure environments and protected from risk. Preventing people with disabilities from experiencing risk and failure doesn’t prepare them for the ‘real world,' and renders them more disabled.


Self-Determination in the Context of Education

young people talking around a table

People with severe disabilities have the right to be self-determined and experience risk.  As educators, we can play a significant role in supporting the development of self-determination and better prepare our students to meet the challenges they will face throughout their lives. It is by teaching our students the necessary skills and attitudes and providing them with the opportunities to play an active role in their education and planning for their future that we can contribute to the development of self-determination. Research has demonstrated that “promoting self-determination has become best practice in the education of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.” (Loman, S. & Al., 2010).

It is Michael L. Wehmeyer’s definition of self-determination that has greatly contributed to the understanding of self-determination and how we as educators can support the development of self-determination in our students. He explains that “self-determined actions contribute to one’s quality of life (QOL), and that a person is the primary causal agent in one’s life by making choices and decisions regarding one’s quality of life, free from undue external influence or interference. He further adds that self-determined behaviour refers to volitional actions that enable one to act as the primary causal agent in one’s life and to maintain or improve one’s quality of life. These are definitions of the term self-determined behaviour, and, as such, it is important to identify what is meant by this class of behaviour. Self- determined behaviour refers to actions that are identified by four essential characteristics” (Wehmeyer & Field, 2007),

  • autonomy (acting independently);

  • self-regulation (controlling one’s behaviour);

  • psychological empowerment (feeling competent); and,

  • self-realization (understanding one’s self). (McDougall, J., & Evans, J., & Baldwin, P., 2010)

Functional Model of Self-Determination

This model suggests that “the emergence of self-determination is based on the enhancement of individual capacity as well as environments and supports that emphasize choice and autonomy. Although the implementation of instruction to support capacity development is important, particularly within the educational arena, such efforts must occur in concert with efforts to provide opportunities to experience control and make decisions and choices. Research has shown that environmental factors do, in fact, limit self-determination (Stancliffe & Wehmeyer, 1995; Wehmeyer & Bolding, in press; Wehmeyer et al., 1995). We have also shown that perceptions held by students with disabilities, including perceptions of and beliefs about their classroom teacher and classroom environment, contribute to enhanced or diminished self-determination (Wehmeyer, 1994; Wehmeyer & Kelchner, 1996; Wehmeyer & Palmer, 1997).
Knowing that students and adults with developmental and cognitive disabilities have limited self- determination and restricted opportunities to experience choice and control in their lives is important in that it provides a baseline for action.” (Wehmeyer, 1999)

Wehmeyer, Michael L., Self-Determination: Instructional and Assessment Strategies, Corwin Press 2007. page 4

“The importance of teaching skills, creating opportunities, and providing supports for students to use these skills to become causal agents—or people that make things happen to improve their quality of life—are the key takeaways from the functional theory. It is also important to remember the following:

  • The purpose of self-determined behaviour is for people to act to achieve their hopes and dreams for their lives.

  • Self-determination develops over time as students develop the skills and attitudes associated with self-determination.

  • Supports and accommodations are critical to developing and expressing self-determined behaviour.

  • Repeated opportunities and appropriate supports are critical for growing self-determination skills. These opportunities and supports will look different as students with disabilities age.” (Shogren, 2013)

These “essential characteristics define self-determined behaviour and emerge through the development and acquisition of multiple, interrelated component elements.” (Mehmeyer, M.L., 2007).


Component Elements Associated with Self-Determined Behaviour

Footnotes to table:

  1. University of Illinois at Chicago National Research & Training Center (2002). Self-determination framework for people with psychiatric disabilities. Chicago, IL: Author.

  2. Wehmeyer, M. L., & Field, S. L. (2007). Self-determination: Instructional and assessment strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

  3. Wehmeyer, M. L., Agran, M., Hughes, C., Martin, J. E., Mithaug, D. E., & Palmer, S. B. (2007). Promoting selfdetermination in students with developmental disabilities. New York: Guilford Press.

  4. Bandura,A. (1993). Perceived Self-Efficacy in Cognitive Development and Functioning. Educational Psychologist. Vol.  28(2), p. 117-148.

(component elements section is taken from Self-Determination Guide: Promoting Findings and Strategies from a Survey of Wisconsin Paraprofessionals - https://www.waisman.wisc.edu/naturalsupports/pdfs/Self-Determination.pdf)

“Self-determination emerges across the life span as children and adolescents learn skills and develop attitudes that enable them to become causal agents in their own lives.” (Wehmeyer & Field, 2007). It is at this level, component elements of self-determination, that instruction occurs. Teachers cannot teach self-determination but can teach the skills that will enable students to develop self-determined behaviours.


The Importance of Self-Determination

Why is self-determination important for people with disabilities?

  • “When you give opportunities for students to make choices you decrease incidents and intensity of “behaviours”.

  • Teaching choice-making skills in vocational settings result in improved outcomes in community-based and vocational instruction.

  • Teaching decision making and problem-solving results in increased safety and engagement in social relationships both in leisure and vocational settings.

  • Teaching students self-monitoring strategies lead to improved active involvement and learning in academic, social and vocations settings.

  • People with disabilities who have higher scores on self-determination scales also had higher scores on quality of life scales.” (Wehmeyer & Fields, 2007)

Boy drawing on an easel

Why do we perpetuate the belief that people with disabilities cannot become self-determined individuals?

The misunderstanding of self-determination contributes to the belief that people with disabilities cannot or do not become self-determined. “When the emphasis is not placed on self-determination as independent performance, absolute control, and success, and instead on:

  • providing individuals with adequate opportunities to be the causal agent inter lives, make choices, and learn self-determination skills;

  • enabling them to maximally participate in their lives and communities; and

  • ensuring that supports and accommodations are in place,

people with significant disabilities can be self-determined.” (Wehmeyer, 1998)

Here are some examples of misinterpretations or misunderstandings people may have about self-determination (Wehmeyer, 1998);

  • Self-Determination is an independent performance;

  • Self-Determination is absolute control;

  • Self-Determination is self-reliance and self-sufficiency;

People with or without disabilities rely on other people to do things for us or assist us. We don’t necessarily need to do everything by ourselves to be considered self-determined. The aim to promote self-determined behaviour is not to have people with absolute control but rather bring people to be less dependent on others, to be an actor in one’s life and not always acted upon. Everyone relies on other people to do things for them or assist them and that does not make them less self-reliant or self-sufficient.  i.e. hiring a car mechanic or seeking help from a neighbour or a professional to accomplish a task.

  • Self-Determined behaviour is always successful;

Expecting people with disabilities to always be successful is denying them the right to make mistakes and to learn from them.

  • Self-Determination is something you do;

  • Self-Determination is a specific outcome;

You cannot define self-determination based on a set of specific behaviours, because any behaviour could be considered an action to take control of one’s life, any outcome can, in fact, reflect self-determination. When looking for a specific outcome one cannot say for a fact that when a person performs a specific action they might be doing so to please someone other than themselves.

  • Self-Determination is just choice.

Choice making is an important component of self-determined behaviour, but so are problem-solving, decision making, self-awareness, and goal-setting. Reducing self-determination to simply making a choice can result in letting people make poor choices such as, allowing people to stand for hours waiting for someone; accepting that someone refuses to take his medication that can potentially result in serious health risks; or letting someone engage in risky behaviour. Allowing people to do something that can potentially harm them is a form of abuse and neglect. 




1.  University of Illinois at Chicago National Research & Training Center (2002). Self-determination framework for people with psychiatric disabilities. Chicago, IL: Author.




Campbell-Whatley, G. (2006). Why am I in special education and what can I do about it?: Helping
students develop self-determination. Teaching Exceptional Children Plus, 3(2) Article 4.


Loman, S. & Al. (2010). Promoting Self-Determination: A Practice Guide. University of Oregon. http://ngsd.org/sites/default/files/promoting_self-determination_a_practice_guide.pdf

Doll, B., Sands, D.J., Wehmeyer, M.L., & Palmer, S. (1996). Promoting the Development and Acquisition of Self-Determined Behaviour. In Self-Determination Across the Life Span - Independence and Choice for People with Disabilities. Brooke's Publishing Baltimore, Maryland.

Field, S. & Al. (1998). A Practical Guide for Teaching Self-Determination. Division on Career Development and Transition. Division of the Council for Exceptional Children.Virginia.

McDougall J., Evans J., Baldwin P. (2010). The importance of self-determination to perceived quality of life for youth and young adults with chronic conditions and disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, Vol. 31, p. 252–260.

Shogren, K.A., (2013). Self-Determination and Transition Planning. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Baltimore

Stancliffe, R. J., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (1995). Vari- ability in the availability of choice to adults with mental retardation. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 5, 319–328.


Ward, J. (2005). An Historical Perspective of Self-Determination in Special EducationL Accomplishments and Challenges. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities. Vo. 30, No. 3, p. 108-112.

Wehmeyer, M.L. (1998). Self-Determinaiton and Individuals with Significant Disabilities: Examining Meanings and Misinterpretations. Research and Practices for Persons with Severe Disabilities, Vol. 23, No. 1, 5-16

Wehmeyer, M.L. (1999). A functional model of self-determination: Describing development and implementing instruction. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, Vol.14, p. 53-61.

Wehmeyer, M.L. (2007). Promoting Self Determination in Students with Developmental Disabilities. Guilford Press. New York.

Wehmeyer, M.L. & Field, S.L. (2007). Self-Determination - Instructional and Assessment Strategies. Corwin Press, California.