Volume: 5, Issue: 4


Culture and Self-Determination for Students with Disabilities
Сэлмирс, Дайен [about]

KEY WORDS: cultural diversity, pre-service teacher training, self-determination, special educators, students with disabilities, teacher education, transition.
ABSTRACT: Transitioning from school to adult life can be a demanding time for students with disabilities.  In the U.S., culture adds another dimension of difficulty in terms of understanding for both families and students.  The article addresses these issues and offers ways to assist special educators in aiding families and their children cope with the challenges of becoming an adult.

Self-determination is a key component of transition as it empowers students with disabilities to make their own choices and determine the course of their lives (Greathouse & Shaughnessy, 2010; Landmark, Ju, & Zhang, 2010; Powers, Deschler, Jones, & Simon, 2006; Test et al., 2009). Although self-determination appears to be a universal concept, its characteristics may vary between cultures. The purpose of this review was to document how self-determination is conceptualized in the United States, as well as the effect culture might have on special educators’ abilities to aid student self-determination. Recurring themes evident in the literature are: self-determination is one of eight domains of the Quality of Life construct; differences in culturally and linguistically diverse populations may affect a student with disabilities’ ability to be self-determined; and cultural differences should be accounted for when designing transition plans for diverse students.  As a result, special educators must become culturally aware and develop the necessary skills to support and facilitate the skills, abilities, and knowledge associated with self-determination.


Since 1975, the United States government has created federal initiatives to support public education for students with disabilities and encourage access to the general education curriculum (academic and nonacademic components) (U.S. Congress, 1975; Wisconsin Education Association Council, 2007; Wright & Wright, 2008). Although the federal government placed an emphasis on career-vocational development and community-based learning for students with disabilities, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Bowen & Rude, 2006; Johnson, Stodden, Emanuel, Luecking, & Mack, 2002) increased the emphasis on student academic achievement, even for students with disabilities. As a result, teachers tend to focus more on ensuring students meet academic requirements and less on transition services (Bowen & Rude, 2006; Johnson et al., 2002).

Teaching students with disabilities to be responsible, self-sufficient citizens can be challenging. Professionals and parents are likely to make most of the students’ major life decisions (Cross, Cooke, & Wood, 1999; Thoma, Baker, & Saddler, 2002). In addition, special educators are not always aware of the difficulties that cultural differences may cause in the definition of disability and what adult life may look like for a particular child with disabilities (Rueda, Monzo, Shapiro, Gomez, & Blacher, 2005). Transition specialists and special education teachers may focus more on facilitating the transition from high school to adult life than assisting students with planning their own transition (Thoma, 2005). As a result, students with disabilities may rely more on others to answer questions, solve problems, or even assist in daily living tasks. If “[w]e want students to do more and learn more than is symbolized by a diploma or test scores” (Sarason, 2003, p. 163), special educators must be able to teach students with disabilities to be self-determined within the student’s cultural framework. To do so, special educators must understand self-determination theory and the impact culture has on an individual’s self-determination.



Self-determination is a concept that exists in multiple disciplines, including political science, psychology, and education (Rosser, 2010). In the United States, self-determination for students with disabilities is a psychological construct, which refers to self- (versus other-) caused action (Wehmeyer et al., 2011). This conceptualization stems from 1972, when Bengt Nirje, a Swedish activist, realized that people with disabilities “could and should have a role in their own choices” (Ward, 2005, p. 108). In the same year, Robert Perske claimed that people with disabilities should have opportunities to experience the “dignity of risk” (Ward, 2005). The “dignity of risk” refers to people with disabilities being allowed to live their lives and take the same risks as those without disabilities. Because American adults without disabilities believe they have an inalienable right to make decisions about one’s own life and future, Cross, Cooke, and Wood (1999) state that individuals with disabilities should be treated similarly. The concepts of making one’s own choices and being in control of one’s life eventually merged into a construct known as self-determination.

Self-determined people exhibit four essential characteristics: the ability to act autonomously; the ability to self-regulate; the capacity to behave in a way that influences the environment (psychological empowerment); and self-realization (Wehmeyer & Field, 2007). In 2005, Wehmeyer defined the construct of self-determination in terms of behavior: “Self-determined behavior 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” (p. 117).

The definition and characteristics described above indeed may be consistent across cultures; Serna, Forness, and Nielsen (1998) described three personal resiliency factors, which relate to the essential characteristics described by Wehmeyer and Field. Those factors are social competence, autonomy, and a sense of purpose and future (Serna et al., 1998). Social competence and a sense of purpose and future relate to the characteristics of self-regulation, psychological empowerment, and self-realization, while autonomy relates directly to the ability to be in control of one’s life without undue influence or interference from external sources. Because these factors are considered part of the self-determination construct, they can be considered critical for positive post-school outcomes for students with disabilities transitioning from high school to adult life (Greathouse & Shaughnessy, 2010; Landmark et al., 2010; Powers et al., 2006; Test et al., 2009).


When students with disabilities complete their required public school education, they “transition” to adult life, whether they go to college or become employed or find housing in the community. In 1997, with the re-authorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), transition became a critical component of U.S. education law (Cross et al., 1999). The IDEA requires that student preferences and interests be accounted for in transition planning (Cross et al., 1999). Because students with disabilities have few opportunities to practice making decisions or developing interests or preferences during their school careers (Danneker & Bottge, 2009; Field, Martin, Miller, Ward, & Wehmeyer, 1998), they may be ill prepared to transition from high school to adult life. The lack of experience with making independent choices may increase a student’s dependence on adults and decrease the student’s ability to effectively participate in his or her transition planning (Danneker & Bottge, 2009). Transition planning for a student with disabilities is considered crucial to that student’s post-school success (Carter, Lane, Pierson, & Stang, 2008).

According to Rueda, Monzo, Shapiro, Gomez, and Blacher (2005), transition planning for students with disabilities can be complex and ambiguous. The authors claimed that successful transition for students with disabilities is “predicated on the notion of life-long support from family members, advocates, and/or agencies” (Rueda et al., p. 402). In addition, cultural differences may cause complications in both the definition of disability and transition (Rueda et al., 2005).


The word, culture, has different meanings, which depend on the context in which it is used. For example, an Internet search of What is Culture? yielded over 10 pages of definitions and discussions of the term. In one example, culture can be defined as “the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization” (Regents of the University of Minnesota, 2013, para. 1). Other definitions listed on the same webpage support this definition, which is surprisingly not limited to ethnicity, such as Asian, French, or African. As a result, one could argue that people who share a similar socioeconomic status, people with similar disabilities, or people with various disabilities would be considered as separate cultures, as each of these groups has a shared pattern of behaviors and interactions that are specific to the relevant group.

Self-Determination and Culture

Zhang (2005) discussed the effects that culture, socioeconomic status, and children’s special education status had on parents’ abilities to support self-determined behaviors in their children.  He stated that parents of students with disabilities tended to exert more control and offered less opportunity for their children to practice self-determined behaviors (Zhang, 2005). The complexity of the self-determination construct might affect parents’ and teachers’ practices in fostering self-determined behaviors in students with disabilities more so than cultural values (Zhang, Wehmeyer, & Chen, 2005).

However, how the way self-determination is operationalized, is impacted by cultural elements; therefore, supporting and facilitating student self-determination must be accomplished using a cultural context and should emphasize the values, beliefs, and practices within that culture (Wehmeyer et al., 2011). For example, a major cultural difference seen in the mainland American culture and Pacific Island cultures is individualism versus collectivism (Wehmeyer et al., 2011). People who are part of the Pacific Islander culture stress social interdependence rather than social independence. Social interdependence refers to one’s sense of self as it is “understood in relationship(s) with and to others” (Wehmeyer et al., 2011, p. 24). As a result, expecting individuals from an interdependent culture to use an individual-centered model of self-determination may isolate the individual instead of supporting self-determined behaviors.

Implications for Special Educators

Because transition implies a change from that of a student to adult life, students with disabilities who exhibit self-determined behaviors are more likely to experience better employment outcomes, as well as improved health and psychological well-being (Heller et al., 2011). However, several studies have shown that cultural differences should be taken into account when designing and implementing transition plans (Landmark, Zhang, & Montoya, 2007; Rueda et al., 2005; Zhang & Benz, 2006). For example, Rueda et al. (2005) and Shogren (2011) agreed that the service delivery systems do not necessarily account for differences in values and beliefs, which may make transition more difficult for non-Caucasian groups. Special education jargon, or language, phrases, and words that are specific to special education, should be explained to families in ways they can understand (Landmark et al., 2007).

Respecting the values of parents and families of culturally diverse students during transition planning will assist in mitigating conflict (Leake & Boone, 2007). Therefore, educators should adopt a flexible perspective on self-determination, one that includes cultural awareness.  And last, and probably most important, special educators should offer opportunities for students to practice self-determination skills (Wehmeyer et al., 2011; Zhang & Benz, 2006).


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