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Self-determination and the empowerment of people with disabilities.

The usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000) states the following with regard to the word empower:
 "Although it is a contemporary
 buzzword, the word empower is not
 new, having arisen in the mid-17th
 century with the legalistic meaning 'to
 invest with authority, authorize.'
 Shortly thereafter it began to be used
 with an infinitive in a more general
 way meaning 'to enable or permit.'
 Both of these uses survive today but
 have been overpowered by the
 word's use in politics and pop psychology.
 Its modern use originated in the
 civil rights movement, which sought
 political empowerment for its followers"
 (2000, pp. 586-587).

Leaving aside a discussion as to whether empowerment is merely a buzzword (when one is not empowered, it probably does not sound very much like a buzzword), it is worth noting the meaning shift or drift that has occurred with use of the term since its 17th century origination and the current linkages between empowerment and issues of control over one's life. However, despite the American Heritage Dictionary's indication that the term's meaning has shifted, it remains less than convincing that the way in which many people use the term is not closer to the original sense of the term. The problem with that meaning with regard to people with disabilities is, of course, that in the end, when one has the power to invest someone else with authority, one also has the power, presumably, to withhold granting that authority. Power and control remain, fundamentally, with the granter in that circumstance. Similarly, the more current meaning, "to enable or permit," seems to offer two synonyms that, in the end, are not equally effective in solving the "granting authority" problem (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000). That is, the act of "permitting" implies authority on the part of one person to allow another to do something, or not. The meaning of empowerment (or more accurately, empower), "to enable," is, in my mind, closer to the sense of the term as used when associated with social movements, particularly the disability rights movement, which typically uses the term in reference to actions that "enhance the possibilities for people to control their lives" (Rappaport, 1981, p. 15). Enable means "to supply with the means, knowledge, or opportunity; to make feasible or possible" (American Heritage Dictionary).

Consideration of what it means to empower someone with a disability is more than just a semantic exercise. Well-intentioned professionals across many disciplines mistake empowerment as something that someone grants or gives to someone else, to the end that the effort falls short of the standard of enhancing the possibilities for people to control their lives. There is a bit of a Catch 22 to issues pertaining to empowerment and professionals in rehabilitation, in that many such professionals genuinely want to do whatever they can to empower people with disabilities but, similarly, don't want to err in assuming that any ultimate authority to grant power or control lies within those very same people. The way out of this conundrum is through efforts to enable people with disabilities to exert control in their lives and, as a function of such actions, to become empowered to do so to a greater extent. As professionals in rehabilitation, the route to "enablement" is by providing opportunities and supports that promote and enhance the self-determination of people with disabilities.

That this is both an appropriate and important focus is illustrated in the findings of Congress from the 1992 Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act (and in the subsequent 1998 reauthorization), which state "disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to:

a. live independently;

b. enjoy self-determination;

c. make choices;

d. contribute to society;

e. pursue meaningful careers; and

f. enjoy full inclusion and integration in the economic, political, social, cultural and educational mainstream of American society" (Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended).

The 1998 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 strengthened and emphasized the importance of self-determination by strengthening the role of informed choice in the rehabilitation process. Indeed, there is a national trend toward residential and vocational services that are delivered in a more consumer-driven manner (Callahan, Shumpert & Mast, 2002; Kilsby & Beyer, 2002; West, 1995). In the end, the intent of Congress in the Rehabilitation Act and the impact of the choice mandates will depend on the capacity of rehabilitation professionals to do business in such a way as to genuinely enable people with disabilities to become more self-determined.

What is self-determination?

Put most simply, the self-determination construct refers to both the right and capacity of individuals to exert control over and direct their lives. The construct's use in reference to a right is grounded in its meaning referring to the political right of people or peoples to self-governance. Disability advocates and activists have stressed the inherent right of people with disabilities to assume responsibility for and control over their lives (Kennedy, 1996; Ward, 1996). In the 1990s, promoting and enhancing the self-determination of students with disabilities, particularly as a function of the transition planning process, became best practice (Wehmeyer, Agran & Hughes, 1998). These efforts focused primarily on enhancing student capacity to become self-determined and exert control in one's life by promoting goal setting, problem-solving, decision-making and self-advocacy skills; they also focused on efforts to promote opportunities for students to use these skills.

A variety of definitions of the construct have emerged from efforts in special education (see Wehmeyer, Abery, Mithaug & Stancliffe, 2003). Field, Martin, Miller, Ward and Wehmeyer (1998) summarized these various definitions of self-determination by stating that self-determined people apply "a combination of skills, knowledge and beliefs" that enable them "to engage in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior. An understanding of one's strengths and limitations together with a belief in oneself as capable and effective are essential in self-determination. When acting on the basis of these skills and attitudes, individuals have greater ability to take control of their lives and assume the role of successful adults in our society" (p. 2). Field et al. (1998) further delineated the common components of self-determined behavior identified across multiple self-determination models or frameworks. These include:

a. awareness of personal preferences, interests, strengths and limitations;

b. ability to
 i. differentiate between wants
 and needs,

 ii. make choices based on preferences,
 interests, wants and needs,

 iii. consider multiple options and
 anticipate consequences for

 iv. initiate and take action when

 v. evaluate decisions based on
 the outcomes of previous decisions
 and revise future
 decisions accordingly,

 vi. set and work toward goals,

 vii. regulate behavior,

 viii. use communication skills such as
 negotiation, compromise and
 persuasion to reach goals, and

 ix. assume responsibility for actions
 and decisions;

c. skills for problem-solving;

d. a striving for independence while recognizing interdependence with others;

e. self-advocacy and self-evaluation skills;

f. independent performance and adjustment skills,

g. persistence;

h. self-confidence;

i. pride; and

j. creativity.


There are several indicators to suggest that the answer to this question is "yes."

First, as mentioned previously, promoting choice and self-determination is mandated by federal disability policy and legislation.

Second, people with disabilities have been unequivocal in their demands for enhanced self-determination (Kennedy, 1996; Ward, 1996).

Third, there is compelling evidence from the special education literature that enhanced self-determination leads to more positive adult outcomes, outcomes that are equally valued by the field of rehabilitation. Wehmeyer and Schwartz (1997) measured the self-determination status of 80 students with mild mental retardation or learning disabilities in their final year of high school and one year after high school. Students with higher self-determination scores were more likely to have expressed a preference to live outside the family home, have a savings or checking account, and be employed for pay. Eighty percent of students in the high self-determination group worked for pay one year after graduation, while only 43 percent of students in the low self-determination group did likewise. Among school-leavers who were employed, youths who were in the high self-determination group earned significantly more per hour (M = $4.26) than their peers in the low self-determination group (M = $1.93)(where "M" represents "mean.")

Wehmeyer and Palmer (2003) conducted a second study, examining the adult status of 94 young people with cognitive disabilities (mental retardation or learning disability) one and three years after high school. These data were consistent with results from Wehmeyer and Schwartz (1997). 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, and 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. Young adults in the high self-determination group were more likely to maintain a bank account by year one, an outcome most likely attributable to the employment status of students in the two groups. Students in the high self-determination group were disproportionately likely to hold a job by the first-year follow-up, to be working either full- or part-time, and to have held a job or have received job training by year three. For those students across the complete sample who were employed, students scoring higher in self-determination made statistically significant advances in obtaining job benefits, including vacation and sick leave and health insurance, an outcome not shared by their peers in the low self-determination group. Overall, there was not a single area in which the low self-determination group fared more positively then the high self-determination group. German, Martin, Marshall and Sale (2000) found that instruction in self-determination could improve student goal setting and enhance participation in educational planning. Sowers and Powers (1995) showed that instruction on multiple components related to self-determination increased the participation and independence of students with severe disabilities in performing community activities.

Finally, there is a growing body of evidence in the field of vocational rehabilitation (VR) that enhancing choice opportunities leads to better VR-related outcomes. For example, Farley, Bolton and Parkerson (1992) evaluated the impact of strategies to enhance consumer choice and involvement in the VR process and found that consumers who were actively involved in VR planning had better vocational career development outcomes. Similarly, Hartnett, Collins and Tremblay (2002) compared costs, services received and outcomes achieved between one group served through the typical VR system and another group involved in a Consumer Choice Demonstration Project in Vermont. They found that the Choice group was two times more likely to have completed rehabilitation and that their mean income was 2.7 times higher.


If the means by which rehabilitation professionals contribute to the empowerment of VR consumers with disabilities is to provide opportunities and supports to enable people to become more self-determined, what are some of the specific strategies that rehabilitation professionals can use to achieve this outcome? It is tempting to take a "skills remediation" approach to "teach" VR consumers skills they do not have that would enhance self-determination. However, it is important that adults with disabilities not be treated as if they are eternal students, which equates too closely with being eternal children. Thus, it is important that efforts to promote skills such as career and job goal setting, decision making, problem solving and self-management be done within a context in which the consumer is in charge of the process. Like other disability systems, traditional vocational services tend to have been "other-directed." That is, in too many cases, decisions about jobs or careers are made for people with disabilities instead of by people with disabilities. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that many customers of VR services simply have not had the experiences and opportunities necessary to enable them to be more self-directed. VR counselors may experience frustration because they want to support individuals to make their own decisions or take greater control and responsibility for their career advancement, yet the individual's limited capacity and experiences are barriers to those outcomes.

Under the auspices of a special demonstration project of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, we at the University of Kansas Beach Center on Disability have been involved in the development and evaluation of a model for use with adults specific to the career decision-making and job-placement processes of VR services in the state of Kansas (Wehmeyer, Lattimore et al., in press). This model--the Self-Determined Career Development Model--is designed to enable VR consumers to engage in a self-regulated problem-solving and goal-setting process leading to job placement. The remainder of this article describes this model as an example of how to promote self determination and thereby empower people with disabilities through the rehabilitation process.

The Self-Determined Career Development Model evaluated in this article was based on the team's previous work with a model of teaching for students with disabilities. It is simplest to describe the adult version of this model for VR by first describing the school-based model.

The Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction (SDLMI) was designed to enable educators to teach students to self-direct the instructional process and, at the same time, enhance their self-determination (Mithaug, Wehmeyer, Agran, Martin & Palmer, 1998; Wehmeyer, Palmer, Agran, Mithaug & Martin 2000). The SDLMI is based on the component elements of self-determination (Wehmeyer, 1999, 2001), the process of self-regulated problem solving and on research on student-directed learning. It is appropriate for students with and without disabilities across multiple content areas, and it enables teachers to engage students in their educational programs by increasing opportunities to self-direct learning. Implementation of the SDLMI consists of a three-phase process. Each phase presents a problem the student must solve by posing and answering a series of four Student Questions (per phase), which students learn, modify to make their own and apply to reach self-selected goals. Each question is linked to a set of Teacher Objectives. Each instructional phase includes Educational Supports identified for teachers to use to enable students to self-direct learning in a variety of areas including, but not limited to, problem solving, choice making, goal development, self-evaluation and self-monitoring.

The problem to solve in Phase 1 is "What is my goal?" In Phase 2, the problem to be solved is "What is my action plan?" and in Phase 3, the problem is "What have I learned?" The Student Questions direct the student through a problem-solving sequence in each instructional phase. The solutions to the problem in each phase lead to the problem-solving sequence in the next phase. Question construction was based on theory in the problem-solving and self-regulation literature that suggests there is a "means-ends" problem-solving sequence that must be followed for any person's actions to produce results to satisfy his or her needs and interests. Teachers implementing the model teach students to solve a sequence of problems by constructing a "means-ends chain," a causal sequence that moves them from where they are to where they want to be, a goal state (Mithaug, et al., 1998).

By answering the questions in this sequence, students are supported to regulate their own problem solving by setting goals to meet needs, constructing plans to meet goals, and adjusting actions to complete plans. The questions differ from phase to phase, but represent identical steps in the problem-solving sequence. That is, students answering the questions must:

* identify the problem,

* identify potential solutions to the problem,

* identify barriers to solving the problem, and

* identify consequences of each solution.

These steps are the basic steps in any problem-solving process and they form the means-end problem-solving sequence represented by the Student Questions in each phase. The first time a teacher uses the model with a student, the initial step in the process is to read each question with or to the student, discuss what the question means and then, as needed, change the wording to enable that student to better understand the intent. In wording changes, the problem-solving intent of the question must remain intact. Going through this process several times as the student progresses through the model should result in a set of questions that a student accepts as his or her own.

The Teacher Objectives within the model provide suggestions for teachers to enable and support students to work through the Student Questions by scaffolding instruction (1), using direct teaching strategies, or collaborating with students to determine the best strategies to achieve goals. The Educational Supports are educational and instructional activities to enable teachers to support students' efforts to answer questions. The emphasis in the model on the use of educational supports that are student-directed provides another means of teaching students to support themselves.

By using the Student Questions, students learn a self-regulated problem-solving strategy to use in goal attainment. Concurrently, teaching students to use self-directed learning strategies provides skills that enable them to begin to become the causal agent in their lives.

The Self-Determined Career Development Model is equivalent to the SDLMI, except that it has been modified for use to support adults and it is specific to the career decision-making process. The three phases of the model are depicted in Tables 1, 2 and 3. The problem to solve in Phase 1 is "What are my career and job goals?" Within all three phases, supports focus upon job and career issues. Objectives have been reframed from teacher objectives to VR counselor or other VR personnel objectives. Supporting the VR consumer to answer each of the questions in Phase 1 leads to the second phase, where the problem to solve is "What is my plan?" The problem in the final phase, Phase 3, is "What have I achieved?"

Wehmeyer, Lattimore et al. (2003) conducted a pilot evaluation of the career development model using a single-subject research design with six VR consumers identified by a counselor as needing more support with career decision making than was traditionally available in the VR system. Within this pilot evaluation, all participants were able to set career and job-specific goals, to assist in the design and implementation of an action plan to achieve those goals and to self-monitor and evaluate their progress toward the goals. Five of the six participants showed progress toward achieving that self-set goal. All participants were able to engage with the facilitator to address questions in the model and to self-set an employment or job-related goal. The VR counselor who referred participants to this pilot evaluation conducted an informal assessment in consumer satisfaction. All except one participant indicated that they had benefited from their participation in the process. Perhaps the most suggestive indicator of the potential for the process to empower people with disabilities involved one woman who made considerable progress toward her goal and, after nine years of unemployment, obtained a job shortly after her involvement with the model. This person expressed her satisfaction with her participation in the process and mentioned her improved confidence to the facilitator. She was, we suggest, empowered not by the professionals with whom she worked but by the skills and positive attitudes she gained by her use of the model.


QUESTION 1: What career and job do I want? EMPLOYMENT SUPPORTS


* Enable person to identify career/job * Self-Assess Job or
 preferences/interests/beliefs/values. Career Preferences/
* Enable person to identify strengths and
 needs related to jobs/careers. * Career and Job
* Enable and support person to prioritize
 career and jobs options and select * Job Shadowing and
 preferred option(s). Sampling.

QUESTION 2: What do I know about it now? * Organizational Skills
 * Problem Solving
* Enable person to identify his or her Instruction.
 current status in relation to prioritized
 job and career option(s). * Choice-Making
* Enable person to identify knowledge/
 skills/needs of job/career option. * Decision-Making
* Assist person to gather information about
 opportunities and barriers in his or her * Goal-Setting
 environments pertaining to prioritized job Instruction.
 and career option(s).

QUESTION 3: What must change for me to get
 the job and career 1 want?


* Support person to prioritize needs related
 to job/career preference(s).

* Enable person to choose primary need and
 decide if action needs to be focused
 toward capacity building, modifying the
 environment or both.

QUESTION 4: What can 1 do to make this


* Teach person to state his or her career/
 employment goals/objectives.

Adapted from Wehmeyer, Lattimore et al. (2003).



QUESTION 1: What actions can I take to reach my * Exploration of
 career or employment goal? Community


* Enable person to identify alternatives to * Problem Solving
 achieve career/employment goal. Instruction.

* Assist person to gather information on * Self-Scheduling
 consequences of alternatives. Training.

* Enable person to select best action * Self-Instruction
 alternatives. Training.

QUESTION 2: What could keep me from taking * Picture-Cue
 action? Training.

* Support person to identify barriers to
 implementing action alternatives. * Self-Advocacy
* Support person to identify actions to remove
 barriers. * Assertiveness
QUESTION 3: What can I do to remove these
 barriers? * Self-Monitoring

* Assist person in identifying appropriate
 employment supports to implement selected
 action alternative.

* Teach person knowledge/skills needed to
 implement selected supports.

QUESTION 4: When will I take action?


* Enable person to determine schedule for action
 plan to remove barriers and implement supports.

* Support and enable person to implement the
 action plan.

* Enable person to self-monitor his or her

Adapted from Wehmeyer, Lattimore et al. (2003).



QUESTION 1: What actions have I taken? EMPLOYMENT SUPPORTS

* Enable person to self-evaluate and articulate
 progress toward goal.

QUESTION 2: What barriers have been removed?


* Assist person to compare progress with his or
 her desired outcomes.

QUESTION 3: What has changed to enable me to get
 the job and career I want?


* Support person to re-evaluate goal if progress
 is insufficient.

* Assist person to decide if goal remains the same
 or changes.

* Collaborate with person to identify if the
 action plan is adequate or inadequate given
 revised or retained goal.

* Assist person to change action plan if

QUESTION 4: Have I achieved what I want to


* Enable person to decide if progress is adequate,
 inadequate, or if goal has been achieved.

* If this goal has been achieved, enable person to
 decide if a different goal is needed to achieve
 his or her employment or career goals.

Adapted from Wehmeyer, Lattimore et al. (2003).


1. Instructional scaffolding is the provision of sufficient supports to promote learning when concepts and skills are being first introduced to students. Retrieved July 23, 2004, from Instructional_scaffolds.


American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. (2000). New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Rehabilitation Act Amendments. (1992). Section 2 (29 U.S.C. 701.)

Callahan, M., Shumpert, N., & Mast, M. (2002). Self-employment, choice and self-determination. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 17(2), 75-85.

Farley, R.C., Bolton, P., & Parkerson, R. (1992). Effects of client involvement in assessment on vocational development. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 35(3), 146-153.

Field, S, Martin, J., Miller, R., Ward, M., & Wehmeyer, M. (1998). A practical guide to teaching self-determination. Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

German, S.L., Martin, J.E., Marshall, L. H., & Sale, R.P. (2000). Promoting self-determination: Using Take Action to teach goal attainment. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 23, 27-38.

Hartnett, J.T., Collins, M., & Tremblay, T. (2002). Longitudinal outcomes in Vermont's Consumer Choice Demonstration Project (1993-1999). Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 17(3), 145-154.

Kennedy, M. (1996). Self-determination and trust: My experiences and thoughts. In D.J. Sands & M.L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), Self-determination across the life span: Independence and choice for people with disabilities (pp. 35-47). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Kilsby, M.S., & Beyer, S. (2002). Enhancing self-determination in job matching in supported employment for people with learning disabilities: An intervention study. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 17(2), 125-135.

Mithaug, D., Wehmeyer, M. L., Agran, M., Martin, J., & Palmer, S., (1998). The self-determined learning model of instruction: Engaging students to solve their learning problems. In M. L. Wehmeyer & D. J. Sands (Eds.), Making it happen: Student involvement in educational planning, decision-making and instruction (pp. 299-328). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Rappaport, J. (1981). In praise of a paradox: A social policy of empowerment over prevention. American Journal of Community Psychology, 9, 1-25.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 USC [section] 701(a)(3). (1992, 1998).

Sowers, J., & Powers, L. (1995). Enhancing the participation and independence of students with severe physical and multiple disabilities in performing community activities. Mental Retardation, 33, 209-220.

Ward, M.J. (1996). Coming of age in the age of self-determination: A historical and personal perspective. In D.J. Sands &

M.L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), Self-determination across the life span: Independence and choice for people with disabilities (pp. 1-16). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

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

Wehmeyer, M. L. (2001). Self-determination and mental retardation. In L. M. Glidden (Ed.), International Review of Research in Mental Retardation, 24, 148. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Wehmeyer, M.L., Abery, B., Mithaug, D.E., & Stancliffe, R.J. (2003). Theory in selfdetermination: Foundations for educational practice. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, LTD.

Wehmeyer, M.L., Agran, M., & Hughes, C. (1998). Teaching self-determination to students with disabilities: Basic skills for successful transition. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Wehmeyer, M., Lattimore, J., Jorgensen, J., Palmer, S., Thompson, E., &

Schumaker, K.M. (2003). The self-determined career development model: A pilot study. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 19, 79-88.

Wehmeyer, M.L., & Palmer, S.B. (2003). Adult outcomes for students with cognitive disabilities three years after high school: The impact of self-determination. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 38, 131-144.

Wehmeyer, M. L., Palmer, S.B., Agran, M., Mithaug, D.E., & Martin, J. (2000). Teaching students to become causal agents in their lives: The self-determining learning model of instruction. Exceptional Children, 66, 439-453.

Wehmeyer, M. L., & Schwartz, M. (1997). Selfdetermination and positive adult outcomes: A follow-up study of youths with mental retardation or learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 63, 245-255.

West, M.D. (1995). Choice, self-determination and VR services: Systemic barriers for consumers with severe disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 5(4), 281-290.


Preparation of this article was supported, in part, by Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) Special Demonstration Projects PR/Award Number H235H000059, awarded to the University of Kansas Center for Research, Inc., Beach Center on Disability. However, the content of this article does not necessarily represent the policy of RSA or the U.S. Department of Education, and the reader should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Dr. Wehmeyer is Associate Professor, Department of Special Education, and Director, Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities, at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, and Principal Investigator for the RSA-funded project "Making it More Than a Job: Infusing Self-Determination Into the Vocational Rehabilitation Process."
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Author:Wehmeyer, Michael L.
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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