As a high school senior, Greg, like most seniors, was busy preparing to attend college away from home. Greg's preparations were more extensive, however, because he uses computer-based technology to help him meet his academic and daily living needs. Greg has many technology support needs due to his physical and learning disabilities; therefore, his preparations were not typical. In fact, it turned out that these needs presented major challenges to his professors and the university's support staff. Computer software programs did not perform as promised, dorm rooms were not wheelchair accessible (except for one room in an all-female dorm), and delays in providing accommodations caused much worry. While many on his high school transition planning team wondered if they would ever be able to facilitate a smooth transition to college, Greg learned a valuable lesson: "You have to be knowledgeable, and you have to be pushy, because you have to be able to articulate what your goals are and what you need to get there."
There is a large body of literature available related to best practices in facilitating the transition from secondary school to adult life for students with disabilities (e.g., Benz & Halpern, 1987; Halpern, 1994; Wehman, 2001; Will, 1984). Much of this literature emphasizes the importance of supporting students to be active participants in the process—that is, to be self-determined (e.g., VanReusen & Bos, 1994; Wehmeyer & Ward, 1995). However, the existing literature does not specifically address the need for students to be self-determined in the process of making the transition to postsecondary education, although there is a literature base addressing the need for students to be self-determined in the general transition planning process (e.g., Wehmeyer & Sands, 1998). As shown in the introductory case study, Greg learned quickly that he needed to be his own advocate and that the support provided to him by teachers and his parents would no longer be so readily available to him. In college, he was expected to know what he needed, to have appropriate documentation to demonstrate his need, and then to advocate for those supports with professionals.
Greg's elementary and secondary schools had the obligation to provide all support necessary for his education; after graduation, however, this was no longer guaranteed to him. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (PL 108-446), as well as previous versions of IDEA, mandate that students with disabilities be provided a free and appropriate public education. This education must be based on an individual's strengths and needs as determined by an educational planning team. Central to this premise is a zero reject principle, which means that a public elementary or secondary school cannot decide that a student's support needs are too severe to provide him or her with an appropriate education. In addition, the educational planning team must consider whether an individual student needs assistive technology, and if so, the school must provide that technology.
That is not the expectation at the postsecondary education level, at which the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 (PL 101-336) and/or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (PL 93-112) and Section 508 of its amendments (per the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 [PL 105-220]) apply. These laws do not guarantee that all of an individual's postsecondary educational needs will be met. These laws ensure equal access, and obtaining services becomes an eligibility issue. (See Chapter 2 for more details about the legal implications of providing supports at the postsecondary level for students with disabilities.) For this reason, more preparation needs to go into the transition planning process to ensure that necessary supports are in place—that the student understands his or her disability and what technology or other supports are necessary to help him or her succeed. In short, the student needs to become his or her means of primary support to the greatest extent possible.
Thus, the need to be self-determined becomes very important. This chapter examines the role of promoting self-determination to support the transition of youth with disabilities from secondary to postsecondary education.
The chapter begins with an overview of self-determination and of research documenting the impact of self-determination in the lives of students with disabilities. This is followed by an overview of the literature pertaining to success in postsecondary education placements. The chapter then describes methods, materials, and strategies to promote self-determination and closes with an examination of the importance of pursuing such an agenda for successful postsecondary education outcomes.
WHAT IS SELF-DETERMINATION?
Self-determination became an important instructional focus in transition services because of efforts to improve transition-related outcomes for youth with disabilities and as part of IDEA transition mandates requiring student involvement in transition planning. In addition to requiring the delivery of transition-services for youth 16 and older, IDEA 1990 required that goals and objectives related to transition services be based on student needs, taking into account student interests and preferences (Wehmeyer, Agran, & Hughes, 1998). The U.S. Department of Education subsequently funded numerous projects to develop methods, materials, and strategies to promote self-determination (Sands & Wehmeyer, 1996; Ward & Kohler, 1996) and active student involvement in transition planning (Wehmeyer & Sands, 1998).
The historical roots of self-determination for people with disabilities can be found in the normalization, independent living, disability rights, and self-advocacy movements and in legislative protections ensuring equal opportunities for people with disabilities (Ward & Kohler, 1996). Wehmeyer and colleagues (Wehmeyer, 1998; 2001; Wehmeyer, Abery, Mithaug, & Stancliffe, 2003) have presented a functional model of self-determination in which self-determined behavior is defined as "acting as the primary causal agent in one's life and making choices and decisions regarding one's quality of life free from undue external influence or interference" (Wehmeyer, 1996, p. 24). Self-determined behavior refers to actions that are identified by four essential characteristics: 1) the person acts autonomously, 2) the behavior(s) are self-regulated, 3) the person initiates and responds to the event(s) in a psychologically empowered manner, and 4) the person acts in a self-realizing manner. These four essential characteristics describe the function of the behavior that establishes whether it is self-determined.
People who consistently engage in "self-determined behaviors" can be described as self-determined, whereas self-determined refers to a dispositional characteristic. Dispositional characteristics involve the organization of cognitive, psychological, and physiological elements in such a manner that an individual's behavior in different situations will be similar (although not identical). Eder (1990) described dispositional states as frequent, enduring tendencies that are used to characterize people and to describe important differences between people. As such, people can be described as self-determined based on the functional characteristics of their actions or behaviors.
The concept of causal agency is central to this theoretical perspective. Broadly defined, causal agency implies that it is the individual who makes or causes things to happen in his or her life. Wehmeyer framed causal agency, and self-determination, within the concept of quality of life. Quality of life is a complex construct that has gained increasing importance as a principle in human services. Schalock (1996) suggested that quality of life is best viewed as an organizing concept to guide policy and practice to improve the life conditions of all people and proposed that quality of life is composed of a number of core principles and dimensions. The core dimensions of quality of life include 1) emotional well-being, 2) interpersonal relations, 3) material well-being, 4) personal development, 5) physical well-being, 6) self-determination, 7) social inclusion, and 8) rights.
As discussed in greater detail subsequently, 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. These attitudes and abilities are the component elements of self-determination, and it is this level of the theoretical framework that drives instructional activities. The essential characteristics that define self-determined behavior emerge through the development and acquisition of these multiple, interrelated component elements. Table 3.1 lists these elements. Although not intended as an exhaustive taxonomy, these component elements are particularly important to the emergence of self-determined behavior. A functional model of self-determination is depicted graphically in Figure 3.1 (Wehmeyer, 1999b).
What Do College Students Say About the Importance of Self-Determination?
College students with disabilities were asked to identify which self-determination skills they believed were necessary to be successful in postsecondary education (Virginia Commonwealth University, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center [VCU-RRTC], 2004). Six areas, or skills, were identified by the students, who represented various disabilities, ethnic groups, and college institutions—both 2 and 4 year (VCU-RRTC, 2004). First, students believed that understanding one's disability was critical. Gaining information from doctors, family members, support groups, or others was essential. They also believed that acceptance of one's disability was a large part of understanding their disability.
A second area identified by the students involved understanding their strengths and limitations. The students believed that in most cases this understanding came from trial and error. It was important to try different supports or strategies in different situations to see what worked and what did not work. They believed that gaining information was important in this area as well. Part of learning about their own strengths and weaknesses involved gathering information from their college disability support services (DSS) offices, their parents, and other resources about strategies to compensate for their disabilities in educational settings.
A third area that the college students identified was learning to succeed despite the impact of their disabilities. Again, gathering information was an important element about which strategies or supports might be helpful. In tandem with this, students believed that understanding their learning styles and how to use accommodations effectively were critical components.
A fourth area involved setting goals and determining how others could contribute to helping set and achieve the students' goals. Students believed that family support and expectations, a desire to be independent, seeing others with disabilities succeed (i.e., having role models), and being involved in activities (e.g., classes, sports) were all essential in teaching them how to set and reach their goals.
The two final areas identified by these students were acquiring problem-solving skills and self-management skills. Students believed that acquiring problem-solving skills was in part learned through trial and error in daily living. They also included talking to others to learn how to develop and implement problem-solving skills and obtaining an understanding of their rights and responsibilities. Learning self-management skills to be aware of limitations, conducting self-evaluation of their performance in any activity, and scheduling and writing to-do lists were other ideas that students believed were important.
In addition, the college students were asked to identify self-determination skills that were essential for high school students to possess for college success. The college students believed that forming relationships with instructors, DSS staff members, friends, and mentors was important. They also identified knowledge of and willingness to use campus resources to assist them and possession of personal skills in addition to self-advocacy, including self-evaluation, perseverance, and coping skills.
Is Self-Determination Important to More Positive Adult Outcomes?
The proposition that self-determination is an important outcome if youth with disabilities are to achieve more positive adult outcomes, including access to postsecondary education, presumes that self-determination and positive adult outcomes are causally linked. The hypothesis that self-determination is important for more positive adult outcomes has support from the literature in two ways: first, by examining the contributions of component elements of self-determined behavior (e.g., choice making, problem solving, decision making, goal setting, self-regulation, self-advocacy) to more favorable school and adult outcomes, and second, by examining studies that tested this hypothesis directly.
A comprehensive review of how component elements of self-determined behavior affect adult outcomes is beyond the scope of this chapter. However, a brief overview still points to the abundant evidence that promoting the component elements listed in Table 3.1 can result in more positive adult outcomes. For example, studies show that improving performance in component elements in turn improves employment, community living, and community integration outcomes for individuals with cognitive disabilities. For example, increased opportunities and capacities to express preferences and make choices have been linked to increased participation of children, youth, and adults with and without disabilities in appropriate or adaptive tasks (Koestner, Ryan, Bernieri, & Holt, 1984; Realon, Favell, & Lowerre, 1990; Swann & Pittman, 1977) and more positive educational or achievement outcomes (Koenigs, Field, & deCharms, 1977). Teaching effective decision-making and problem-solving skills has been shown to improve the adaptability skills (Mithaug, Martin, & Agran, 1987), employment outcomes (Park & Gaylord-Ross, 1989), parenting skills (Tymchuk, Andron, & Rahbar, 1988), and community living outcomes (Foxx & Bittle, 1989) of people with disabilities.
Similarly, research links enhanced self-management and self-regulation skills to positive adult outcomes. Self-monitoring strategies are frequently used to improve work-related activities, such as attention to task, task completion, and accuracy (Hughes, Korinek, & Gorman, 1991; McCarl, Svobodny, & Beare, 1991). Lovett and Haring (1989) showed that self-recording activities enabled adults with disabilities to improve task completion of daily living activities. Self-instruction techniques have been used to successfully solve work-related problems (Agran, Fodor-Davis, & Moore, 1986; Hughes & Petersen, 1989; Rusch, McKee, Chadsey-Rusch, & Renzaglia, 1988; Salend, Ellis, & Reynolds, 1989), improve employment outcomes (Agran, Salzberg, & Stowitschek, 1987; Lagomarcino & Rusch, 1989; Moore, Agran, & Fodor-Davis, 1989), and teach social skills critical to independence (Agran et al.,1987; Hughes & Agran, 1993).
Research on these component elements of self-determined behavior provides strong, though not direct, evidence that youth who are more self-determined achieve more positive adult outcomes. A few studies provide evidence of the relationship between self-determination and more positive outcomes for youths' transitions to adulthood. Wehmeyer and Schwartz (1997) measured the self-determination of 80 students with learning disabilities or mental retardation and then examined adult outcomes 1 year after they left high school. Students in the high self-determination group were more than twice as likely (80% of sample) as youth in the low self-determination group to be employed (40% of sample) and earned, on average, $2.00 per hour more than students in the low self-determination group who were employed. There were no significant differences between groups regarding level of intelligence or number of vocational courses.
Wehmeyer and Palmer (2003) conducted a second follow-up study, examining the adult status of 94 students with cognitive disabilities at 1 and 3 years after graduation. One year after high school, students in the high self-determination group were disproportionately likely to have moved from where they were living during high school; by the third year, they were still disproportionately likely to live somewhere other than their high school home and were significantly more likely to live independently. For employed students, those scoring higher in self-determination (as measured by The Arc's Self-Determination Scale: Adolescent Version [Wehmeyer & Kelchner, 1995]) made statistically significant advances in obtaining job benefits, including vacation, sick leave, and health insurance—an outcome not shared by their peers in the low self-determination group. Overall, there was not a single item on which the low self-determination group fared more positively than the high self-determination group.
Excerpted from Chapter 3 of Going to College: Expanding Opportunities for People with Disabilities, edited by Elizabeth Evans Getzel, M.A., & Paul Wehman, Ph.D.
Copyright© 2005 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.