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Self Determination

What is Self-Determination?

Self determination is believing you can control your own destiny. Self-determination is a combination of attitudes and abilities that lead people to set goals for themselves, and to take the initiative to reach these goals. It is about being in charge, but is not necessarily the same thing as self-sufficiency or independence. It means making your own choices, learning to effectively solve problems, and taking control and responsibility for one's life. Practicing self-determination also means one experiences the consequences of making choices.

teen boy smiling

Additional Reading

  • Consider the Alternatives: Decision-Making Options for Young Adults with Intellectual Disabilities
  • This brief, written by Think College partners at the Pacer Center, focuses on alternatives to guardianship. It explains the different options available to families, and what the ramifications are for those options. In particular, this publication explains details and possible outcomes for power of attorney, supported decision-making, and guardianship. Examples are shared, as well as many additional resources.

Developing Self-Determination Skills

The development of self-determination skills is a process that begins in childhood and continues throughout one's life. Self-determination is important for all people, but it is especially important, and often more difficult to learn, for young people with disabilities. Well-meaning individuals sometimes "protect" children with disabilities by making all their decisions for them. Also, sometimes people assume that people with disabilities can't think for themselves.

Self-determination involves many attitudes and abilities including: self-awareness, assertiveness, creativity, and pride, and problem solving and self-advocacy skills. To take charge of your own life, you must be able to set goals, evaluate options, make choices and then work to achieve your goals.

Since self-determination skills are most effectively learned and developed by practicing them, students with disabilities should be given ample opportunity to use their self-advocacy, decision-making and socialization skills well before they leave high school to prepare themselves for working and living in their community.


Older and more experienced adults with disabilities can play a helpful role in this process not only by serving as role models, but by working actively and directly with youth as mentors. By sharing the experiences and strategies that led to their own successful employment and independence, mentors can help guide youth through a challenging transition period, offer problem-solving advice on issues that parents lack direct experience with (or that youth may be reluctant to discuss openly with their parents), and provide needed encouragement.

Many agencies offer mentoring programs that match youth with an adult mentor. Some specifically focus on youth with disabilities. Investigate what programs may be available in your community by checking with Independent Living Centers for People with disabilities, parent centers in your state, community agencies (such as YMCAs, YWCAs, Boys' Clubs and Girls" Clubs programs), and your state vocational rehabilitation agencies.

Family Support

Families can provide support for their young adults with disabilities in the development of self-determination skills. Parents can help prepare their young adults with disabilities by giving them a growing number of opportunities to make their own decisions. Families should also provide their teenager with opportunities to explore employment, housing options, and community recreation programs in their community by utilizing their own network of relatives and friends, as well as formal service systems. Most importantly, families should prepare themselves to accept their child in his or her new adult role and allow their adult children to take an active role in the decisions that will determine their future _ even if it means allowing them to make mistakes.

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PACER Resources on Self Determination

Other Online Resources on Self Determination

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