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Self-determination for persons with disabilities: choice, risk, and dignity.

Self-determination is the ability of a person to consider options and make appropriate choices regarding residential life, work, and leisure time. Teaching self-determination skill s to people with disabilities is receiving increased attention for several masons. First, there is a growing philosophical base of support for providing choice opportunities to people with disabilities. Professional literature clearly indicates that normalization and quality of life are closely associated with one's ability to choose from a range of life options (Blatt, 1987; Kishi, Teelucksingh, Zollers, Park-Lee, & Meyer, 1988; Mann, Harmoni, & Power, 1989; O'Brien, 1987). The most capable person, restricted from exercising free choice in critical areas, may not have a fulfilled life.

Second, although limited, there are a number of empirical studies documenting that people with profound and multiple disabilities can learn to make choices (Dattilo & Rusch, 1985; Realon, Favell, & Lowerre, 1990). Studies such as these have the potential to significantly alter training approaches for people whose daily lives are highly regimented and controlled by professionals. In addition, opportunities to make even the most rudimentary choices (e.g., what to eat) can meaningfully increase the quality of life.

Third, follow-up studies of special education graduates have produced disappointing findings. Researchers have reported that the majority of youth with disabilities have not made a successful transition from school to life as a young adult in the community. It is likely that people with disabilities have acquired basic skills in school. The problem, however, may be their inability to selfdirect the use of these skills when confronted with several options in functional contexts.

This article presents a rationale for teaching self-determination. Further, we present a framework for expanding the choice repertoire of persons with disabilities, based on systematic analyses of risks and benefits.


As noted earlier, self-determination is spurred by a growing philosophical base. Many proponents of normalization advocate for full integration of persons with disabilities in natural community settings (Brown et al., 1989; Stainback, Stainback, & Forest, 1989). These settings are inherently less predictable and harder to control than more restrictive settings. They contain many choices and demand prudent decisions. As we increasingly enable all persons with disabilities to live, go to school, work, and spend leisure time in community settings, we must place greater emphasis on developing self-determination. Wolfensberger ( 1972, p. 238) stated:

We should assist a person to become capable of

meaningfully choosing for himself among those

normative options that are considered moral and

those that are not. If a person is capable of

meaningful choice, he must also risk the


In a now classic article, Perske (1972) identified a vital connection between choice, risk, and dignity. People without disabilities, Perske noted, are faced with many decisions that involve some degree of physical or emotional risk. To deny the right to make choices in an effort to protect the person with disabilities from risk, he argued, is to diminish their human dignity. Blatt (1987) also argued eloquently for the rights of persons with disabilities, including their fight to choice and risk. Blatt stated that freedom to make choices, even choices that may result in harm, is a freedom that most people cherish. Freedom of choice is one of the highest American ideals. Why then, asked Blatt, should we hold a different set of ideals and values for people with disabilities?

Research on the abilities of people with intellectual disabilities to make decisions and solve problems supports the efficacy of teaching selfdetermination. Zetlin and Gallimore (1980, 1983) have demonstrated that people with mild to moderate mental retardation are able to learn decision-making strategies with the aid of systematic verbal prompting in the form of teacher questioning. These researchers suggested that instructional strategies commonly employed in special education classrooms, such as teaching rote responses and providing limited options from which the student has to choose, may preclude opportuntities to learn decision-making skills.

Other researchers have focused on assisting people with severe disabilities to make choices and express preferences. Goode and Gaddy (1976) developed an observational technique for recognizing choices made by people with the multiple disabilities of mental retardation, deafness, and blindness. Parsons and Reid (1990) demonstrated how a repeated, paired-item assessment procedure allowed people with profound mental retardation to express food and drink preferences. Koegel, Dyer, and Bell (1987) described a procedure for identifying child preferred play activities in children with mental retardation and autism. These authors also reported a decrease in social avoidance behaviors when children engaged in play activities they selected, as opposed to activities arbitrarily chosen by an adult.

The need for self-determination skills by people with disabilities has also been indicated by follow-up studies. These studies revealed that less than one third of all working-age adults with intellectual disabilities are employed, while the overall employment rate in the United States is about 95% (Hams & Associates, 1986). Fewer than 15% of all persons with disabilities who are out of school more than 1 year enroll in vocational training, compared to 56% of high school graduates without disabilities (Wagner, 1989). More than 40% of employed adults with disabilities earn below minimum wage (Hasazi, Gordon, & Roe, 1985; Neel, Meadows, Levine, & Edgar, 1988).

Investigators examining reasons for occupational failure among young adults with disabilities report that few individuals fail to secure or lose jobs because of inability to perform required tasks. Rather, failure has been linked to lack of appropriate decision-making skills related to the job and inability to adjust to work situations (Benz & Halpern, 1987; Schloss, Hughes, & Smith, 1989). Johnson (1988) reported that the ability to identify problems, identify possible alternatives, and select the best alternative are competencies used by employers to define employability.

Harris and Associates (1986) indicated that approximately 8% of the U.S. gross national product is spent each year on unemployed or underemployed people with disabilities. Most of this amount supports dependence rather than independence. Schloss, Wood, and Schloss (1987) compared the net disposable income of people with disabilities who were employed with the income of those who received social support (e.g., Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, etc.). The authors reported no substantial difference in net disposable income regardless of employment or dependence on social welfare.

It is likely that the desire for physical and emotional safety, coupled with lowered expectations, has restricted choices available to people with disabilities. Our inability to foster self-determination may be a major detriment to the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the mainstream of American life.


Despite arguments supporting the rights of people with disabilities to exert free choice, advocates caution that granting unrestricted choice may be detrimental to the health and welfare of the individual. Also, the practice of self-determination by a person with disabilities may violate the rights of others. For example, parents may believe that their rights to make decisions about how much risk is masonable for their child are being usurped when professionals advocate for the dignity of risk. Kaminer and Jedrysek (1987) maintain that while professionals have more expertise about disabling conditions, parents typically are more familiar with the behavior of their children and the specific dangers of their day-today environment.

In a review of literature on physical risks and injury of children and adolescents with mental retardation, Kaminer and Jedrysek (1987) found only a few reports on risk assessment. These authors noted the need for more data-based assessments of risk relative to age and abilities of the individual, nature of the dangers posed in the community settings frequented by the individual, and adequacy of resources and supports available. They emphasized the need to balance the freedom of choice for the person with disabilities with the rights and needs of families and other individuals. They further argued that decisions regarding self-determination and degree of risk tolerable are likely to be prudent if based on data, rather than solely on values.

It is important that all members of society be accorded liberties defined in the U.S. Constitution. The mere presence of a disability should not restfit in the suspension of constitutional guarantees without further analysis (Alper, Schloss, & Schloss, in press).

Suspension of rights should occur only after judicial analysis. Unfortunately, this analysis has traditionally followed a simplistic plan and has been based on limited information. Cobb (1973), for example, has concluded that people with disabilities have been subject to the negative presumption of society. That is, they are presumed to be ineligible for constitutional guarantees because of the disability. Accordance of fights occurs only after the person demonstrates eligibility. Mainstream society, on the other hand, benefits from positive presumption. Our fights are suspended only after we are proven to be ineligible.

The following section describes a decisionmaking model that is based on the positive presumption of constitutional guarantees. It provides a set of decision rules that ensure that rights are suspended only when self-determination is expected to produce unwarranted physical or emotional risk.


The three-dimensional continuum allows for the systematic expansion of the choice status for people with disabilities. It is based on the following premises:

1. Liberties are not denied for arbitrary or pejorative reasons.

2. The individual has maximum opportunity to express preferences, with others according full respect to those wishes.

3. Services are not suspended when required for health and safety.

4. Risk and benefit are balanced.

5. The ability of an individual to make choices is dynamic; that is, choice status may increase as a person benefits from new learning.

Use of the choice continuum recognizes that comprehensive assessment of an individual may indicate the need to suspend rights. In some cases, this decision is highly objective and socially validated. For example, few would argue that people who are blind should receive drivers' licenses. In other instances, decisions regarding free choice are highly moot. Many would argue the merits of restricting sexual fights of individuals with mild disabilities (c.f., Rosen, 1972; Wolfensberger, 1972).

No single authority or author is able to resolve these issues. The process outlined here, however, describes a systematic approach to ensure that due process occurs. We believe that this process begins with the careful study of the individual, his or her family, immediate social surroundings, and other factors. Based on this study, a group of concerned individuals, along with the person with disabilities, may make judgments. As has been emphasized, the ultimate goal of the judgment is a thoughtful balance of the potential for risk with the benefit of personal responsibility and freedom.

Dimension 1: Source of Input

The first dimension of the choice continuum concerns how much input a person with disabilities has in making a particular decision. This dimension has five levels, ranging from no input to total control over the decision. These levels are as follows:

1. The individual has complete responsibility to

make a choice regarding some event in his or

her day-to-day life. Parents and professionals

may be asked for their input and advice, at the

discretion of the person with disabilities. A

person with mental retardation may, for exam-

ple, plan 3 days of meals and then select a store

in which to purchase the food.

2. Professionals or parents have input into deci-

sions, but the final and binding choice is made

by the person with disabilities. Professionals

may assist a young adult in locating two ac-

ceptable apartments, but the final selection is

made by the person with disabilities.

3. Decision making is viewed as a mutual, recip-

rocal process in which the person with disabil-

ities is an equal partner. A student may attend

her own Individualized Education Prograna

(IEP) meeting and prioritize objectives in co-

operation with her parents and teachers.

4. Decisions are made by parents and profes-

sionals, with some input tYom the client. For

example, a person with disabilities might be

asked to state his preferences for living alone

or with roommates, but the final decision

would be made by others.

5. The individual with disabilities has no input

into decisions regarding his or her day-to-day

life. Every choice is made by parents or pro-

fessionals. This may be the case in some large,

congregate residential institutions.

Dimension 2: Degree of Risk

The second dimension of the choice continuum addresses the nature of the choice or decision. Specifically, the degree of physical, emotional, economic, or legal risk involved is considered. Of particular importance are dangerous consequences that may result from an incorrect choice. This dimension includes four levels:

1. The choice involves some potential for imme-

diate risk, but little possibility of long-term

harm to the individual or others. These activ-

ities generally include routine events (e.g.,

what to eat for dinner, which shirt to wear). A

poor choice of food could result in nutritional

imbalance or digestive distress.

2. The decision involves mild risk with minimal

possibility of long-lasting harm to the individ-

ual or others. One example might include

choosing to spend one's lunch money on

video games and having no lunch as a result.

Another example is boarding the wrong bus

and becoming lost. The adverse effect of this

poor choice would be the inconvenience of ar-

riving late at the destination.

3. The choice results in a moderate probability

for long-lasting harm to the individual or oth-

ers. Becoming sexually active without birth

control, for example, has a moderate chance

for yielding an unwanted pregnancy. Marry-

ing an abusive or chemically dependent per-

son is a related example in which there is a

moderate chance for lasting harm.

4. The decision involves an almost certain out-

come that includes personal injury. A decision

to abuse addictive substances on a daily basis,

for example, is certain to produce long-term

personal harm.

It is important to note that the risk dimension is evaluated within the context of high-probability responses of the individual to the choice. For a normally prudent person, risks associated with the range of high-probability outcomes for the choices of snack food are fairly small. One would expect that the most hazardous choice would be a food high in fat, sodium, or calories. A young child with severe disabilities, however, may have a modest likelihood of selecting poisons given an unrestricted choice. Consequently, the same choice for two individuals may yield different risk projections. Further, the input status for the first individual would be unrestricted, whereas parent and professional input would be imposed for the second.

Dimension 3: Degree to Which Input Is Binding

The third dimension of the choice continuum emphasizes the degree to which the person with disabilities is required to accept the input of others in decision making. The levels correspond to the five levels in Dimension 1, as follows:

1. Outside input is nonbinding. The individual

chooses whether to solicit input on a given

issue. Having received input, he or she may

accept some or all of the advice received, or

may reject it in favor of another course of ac-

tion. For example, the individual might seek

advice regarding listings in employnaent ads,

but makes the final decision on where to apply

for work.

2. Outside input is binding only on a portion of

the decision. A parent or professional points

out items of clothing suitable to the antici-

pated environment, and the person with dis-

abilities makes the final choice t|om the items


3. Outside input is binding once the individual's

input has been given equal weight in the de-

velopment of a range of choice options. The

student's vocational interests are given con-

sideration in the development of job training


4. Outside input is binding, with the individual' s

input considered only if deemed advisable by

others. An individual with diabetes might be

asked about food preferences. Whether or not

those preferences am included in the diet de-

pends on the advice of medical professionals.

5. External individuals exert total control over

the outcome. Circumstances have made op-

tions unavailable to the individual with dis-

abilities, or she is considered unable to

meaningfully contribute to safe choices.

The extent to which an individual is granted responsibility in making choices (Dimension 1 ), the degree of harm that could result from making a bad choice (Dimension 2), and the degree to which outside input is binding (Dimension 3) must all be considered on a choice-by-choice basis when encouraging or limiting personal freedom. The determination of choice status will relate to the degree of confidence in the person's ability to make effective judgments within each risk category. The judgment of a person's capability is based on knowledge of basic skills the person possesses relating to the ultimate decision, past experiences with similar decisions, and the presence of social and emotional problems that may detract from an effective decision.

The ultimate goal for each choice is for the individual to exercise as much personal freedom as possible while minimizing personal risk. For example, a less capable person may be accorded maximum self-determination in low-risk situations. She is encouraged to exercise full freedom of choice regarding matters that pose no possibility for harm. Alternately, she is accorded less control (parent/professional judgment, with some input from the individual) for situations with moderate probability for lasting harm. Another, more capable individual may be accorded full freedom of choice in all but situations with potential for long-term harm. In these extreme situations, mutual participation of parents, professionals, and the individual in the decision is required.

As we have emphasized previously, the careful assessment of the learner is central to the identification of current choice status. Assessment is also important for establishing objectives and developing strategies for normalizing choice status. The following sections will discuss assessment approaches.


Assessment methods must be appropriate to the purpose and provide the information necessary to make education and training decisions (Browder, 1987). Variables that are relevant to educational decisions about academic subjects are not necessarily relevant to decisions regarding choice. For example, though the results of an intelligence test are highly correlated with success in school, they fail to address the behaviors relevant to sound decision making. Sattler (1974) emphasizes that intelligence tests fail to measure the processes underlying a response, they may be ineffective predictors of functional outcomes (e.g., employment success, community adjustment, etc.), and they are not sensitive to creative or unconventional solutions to daily problems.

Similarly, adaptive behavior scales may not be effective when used in isolation to measure a person's ability for self-determination. Adaptive behavior refers to the ability to meet age and culturally normative standards of personal independence and cope with the social demands of the environment (Grossman, 1983). Measures of adaptive behavior may indicate immediate training needs but are not predictive of long-term functioning. As Leland (1978) pointed out, dealing with social demands is "the reversible aspect of mental retardation, and it reflects primarily those behaviors which are most likely to be modified through appropriate treatment or training methods" (p. 28). Instruments designed to assess adaptive behavior sample a limited number of behaviors. Choice-making is highly complex and contingent on the individual's dynamic interaction with the environment. Behaviors reflecting this interaction may or may not be sampled by any one standardized test of adaptive behavior.

Finally, measures of objective physiological processes (e.g., visual acuity, auditory acuity, physical capability, etc.) are often invalidated by compensatory training and assistive devices. Short- and long-term goals within the dimensions of the choice continuum will be determined by the individual' s current ability to recognize and deal with individual limitations. The decision to allow a person who is blind the choice to travel alone will be influenced by the skills attained in the use of a guide dog or an assisting device such as a cane. The choice to use a motorized wheelchair by a person who has limited mobility will be governed by that person' s ability to operate the chair safely for self and others.

In view of these limitations, we are proposing an ecological approach to identifying current choice status, establishing methods for enhancing choice, and establishing objectives leading to normal choice status. The next section describes the situation-specific assessment of choice status.


Situation-specific assessment is conducted to identify the learner's choice status for any given choice situation. A choice situation is defined as any discrete opportunity in which the learner may select from one or more options. Three specific evaluations are made in the situation-specific assessment.

As in the choice continuum, the extent to which the evaluation areas overlap depends on the degree of potential risk and the skill level of the person in question. A combination of the assessment results from the first evaluation (the learner's potential for making an adverse choice) and the second evaluation (risks associated with possible adverse choice), provides guidelines for the third evaluation (the degree of input required for the learner to arrive at an optimum choice). Each of these appraisals is discussed separately.

Learner's Potential for Making an Adverse Choice

As emphasized previously, the degree of risk associated with a particular choice is limited by the range of possible responses by an individual. A youth whose past free-time pursuits in class have included only academically or socially enhancing activities may be allowed unrestricted future choices. Alternately, a child who has become aggressive during some free-time activities may be restricted by the teacher. In the first case, risks associated with probable responses by the student are very low. In the second, the risks are much higher.

Similarly, a youth residing in a group home may be provided unrestricted choice over meal plans if a review of his or her discretionary food consumption indicates appropriate nutritional balance. If the review of discretionary food consumption indicated an excess of fats and carbohydrates and a deficiency of vitamins and minerals, staff members may guide food selections.

Assessment of the learner' s potential for making an adverse choice is conducted through three basic methods. The first includes unstructured interviews with parents and other professionals. Questions asked in these interviews address the individual's past responses to similar choices. Note that the validity of interview data (i.e., accuracy in predicting future responses to choice options) is related to the recency and the similarity of the experience to the current situation. The more recent the experience, the less likely that maturation and education will produce dissimilar responses. The more similar the situation, the less likely that alternate variables will produce different outcomes (Schloss & Sedlak, 1986).

The second assessment method includes unstructured interviews with the student or student response samples. An initial question may address the range of responses the individual has exhibited in past choice situation. For example, a teacher may ask students what leisure activities they participate in when given a choice. Similarly, the teacher may ask a student to identify six of their favorite meals. Follow-up questions may lead to a ranking of possible responses based on the probability of occurrence or personal preference.

Browder (1987) has described techniques for identifying preferences of individuals with limited verbal skills. The methods involve constructing situations analogous to the natural choice situation but devoid of risks. For example, a driving simulator may reflect a student' s ability to make safe choices behind the wheel without risks associated with driving a real automobile. Consumer simulations may reflect how a youth may manage money without the risks associated with unwise use of credit cards or checks.

The extent to which student responses in simulated conditions reflect likely choices in the natural setting cannot always be predicted. In general, however, simulations that include numerous salient stimuli found in the real situation may more accurately reflect natural performance when contrasted with simulations possessing few stimuli in common with the actual setting.

It is important to note that individuals who have been exposed to a limited number of activities and materials may react out of habit rather than free choice. They may need repeated exposure to novel experiences before a true assessment of preference can be made.

The third assessment method includes direct observation of the student in similar situations. Though this approach may be the most difficult and risky, it is also the most valid. Direct observation involves placing the student into the natural situation in which choices are to be made. For example, community-based leisure choices can be evaluated by permitting the student to go downtown during the evening with minimal guidance. Menu choices may be assessed by observing the person as he or she orders at a restaurant.

Risks Associated with Adverse Choices

We noted earlier that the extent to which an individual is accorded freedom of choice is dictated, in part, by risks associated with a less than optimum outcome. These risks are judged by the degree to which any possible response to a choice situation may result in harm to the individual or others. For example, a decision that universally yields minimal possibility for harm is almost certain to be provided minimal external input. However, a decision that yields a moderate possibility for lasting harm may require substantial involvement of parents, professionals, and the individual.

The assessment of risk for a particular response to a choice situation is complex. We must consider several factors. Is the possible harm of a short-term nature (e.g., brief period of hunger resulting from spending lunch money on video games) or long-term (e.g., loss of income resulting from being fired)? Is the possible harm psychological (e.g., loss of friendship resulting from insulting an individual) or physical (e.g., weight gain resulting from poor nutrition)? Finally, is the harm direct and predictable (e.g., physical injury from an untrained individual falling off a bicycle) or indirect and unpredictable (e.g., getting a cold from drinking from a dirty glass)?

Input Required for Optimum Choice

The preceding assessment approaches collectively indicate the range of possible responses to a choice situation and the risk associated with possible responses. As emphasized earlier, our major goal is to provide only the input necessary to mitigate against unwanted risk. This assessment is conducted to balance input with risk.

Methods for assessing input requirements are similar to those used for evaluating probable student responses to choice situations. Parent and professional interviews, student interviews, and direct observation can all contribute to determining the amount of input needed to limit risks associated with a given choice.

Questions asked during unstructured interviews with parents and other professionals address the individual's past responses to similar choices given varying levels of structure. For example, will the youth have a balanced and calorie-controlled diet if no menu-planning assistance is provided? If not, will consultation be sufficient to avoid the risks associated with a poor diet? Unstructured interviews with the student are also used to assess the extent of support required to mitigate against risk. Initial interview questions tbcus on the extent to which support from others may restrict the range of responses. Similarly, observations in analogue situations may be conducted with less verbal students to indicate the extent of support required to minimize risk. Finally, direct observation of the student in natural situations may provide the most valid intbrmation on the extent of input required.

Situation-specific assessment has majorsocial and cultural implications. Choices are deemed appropriate or inappropriate in relation to the individual's community and family background (Mercer, 1972). For some families, substantial risks are associated with dropping out of school. Education is substantially less important for others. The possibility of choosing to enter the military may be viewed highly favorably (low risk) by some families, but unfavorably (high risk) by others.


The preceding assessment objective focused on the extent to which personal freedom is accorded given specific choice situations. To a large extent, the range of possible choice situations is limited by the settings in which an individual resides, works, is educated, and participates in leisure activities. In general, the more normalized the setting, the greater the number of choice situations. The less normal, the fewer choice situations.

Large institutions, for example, are largely void of choice situations commonly found in mainstream society. By the very nature of the setting, residents are not able to choose what to eat, where to eat, where to sleep, what recreational activities to pursue, what jobs to perform, etc. Choice situations are generally limited to very restricted options (e.g., watch TV or sit quietly, eat the meal that is served or wait for the next meal period, go to class or remain in the living unit, etc.). Most often, each of the preceding restricted choices is accompanied by a highly directive set of contingencies (e.g., if you remain in the living unit during class periods, you are denied activity privileges).

In view of the critical relationship between placements and the availability of high- to lowrisk choice situations, settings should be selected only after a careful consideration of the individual's choice status. The only justification for a restrictive placement is to provide for the safety of an individual with a history of making choices resulting in physical or emotional harm (low-choice status). Thus, the safety of a person who had made frequent attempts at suicide could only be guaranteed in a restrictive setting. In other instances, a high degree of safety for a lowstatus choice maker may be provided through building prosthetics into a less restrictive setting. A young man with a history of elopement may be given access to community settings with an appropriate staffing plan and predetermined contingencies in the event he tries to run away.

Choice status is dynamic. As one benefits from maturation and new learning experiences, the ability to make optimum choices increases. Further, educational efforts consistently ibcus on the development of a student's ability to make optimum choices under increasingly risky and complex circumstances. Therefore, a student's current placement must be continuously evaluated to ensure that available choice situations reflect his or her choice status.

It is important to highlight the distinction between expanding an individual's choice status while maintaining his or her placement in a restrictive setting and moving the person to a less restrictive setting as self-determination skills increase. Walsh and McCallion (1987) argued that placement in normalized, small communitybased programs does not automatically preclude problems of humanity, rights, and quality of life. These authors contended that through proper organization and management, state-of-the-art programs can be developed in small institutions.

Our position is that as a person's skills in assuming input into potentially risky choices increase, movement to a less restrictive setting is preferable. Undoubtedly, it is possible to expand the range of choices available within an institutional or other sheltered setting. The very nature of these facilities, however, will limit this range. It is unlikely, for example, that any institution could operate with an open-door policy under which residents could come and go as they pleased. However, even if such a policy were to be implemented, those persons who made appropriate choices would most likely be able to move to a less restrictive domestic setting in the community.

A student who frequently faces choice situations with numerous adverse consequences for responses that he or she is likely to engage in may require additional input available through a more restrictive setting. Conversely, a student who is placed in a setting void of choice situations that make use of his or her ability to provide optimum responses with minimal input, would benefit from a less restrictive setting.

It is important to note that beyond potential risk, available input for choices also indicates the appropriateness of a given placement. Mainstream classrooms generally include a large number of students with a single teacher. The teacher may not be available to provide input to the vast majority of choice situations faced by the students. A self-contained class may include a small number of students with a teacher and a paraprofessional. This setting may provide a substantial amount of input for all possible choice situations. Even within placements, additional services can be offered to increase the availability of input to the student. Extraordinary-care aides, interpreters, and consultants can all increase available input in a particular setting.


Choice status, as determined by the relationship between input and situations, should not be static. The goal of every education and rehabilitation program should be to reduce the level of input while increasing the degree of risk in the situation under which any individual may make choices. Just as the normal child is accorded little input over most decisions early in life, so do we expect that input will be restricted for most young individuals with developmental delays. As educational services expand the experiences and capabilities of the individual, so do we expect the choice status to normalize.

The ultimate goal is for an individual to approach Level 1 or 2 input for the most provoking situations in their current setting. Once this is achieved, the student may be moved to a less restrictive setting that offers more complex choice situations and more limited input.

The principal method for enhancing choice status in a particular setting is through prompt management. The objective of effective prompt management is to provide only the level of input necessary to ensure an appropriate response in the choice situation. Levels of prompts common to most choice situations coincide with the input dimensions on the choice continuum. From least to most intrusive, they include: total independence in making a choice; guidance that does not restrict the actual response of the student; guidance that may partially restrict the actions of the individual; guidance that more fully restricts the actions of the individual; and the parent or professional who fully restricts, or acts on behalf of the student.

The preceding prompts are used in a particular choice situation in the following manner:

1. Identify the discrete choice situation (e.g., op-

portunity for the student to select a seat in the

classroom, choose a reading assignment, de-

termine recess activities, etc.).

2. Provide a priori restrictions in the choice (e.g.,

choices of seats are limited to those in the front

of the class, reading assignment must include

one of eight classics, recess activities cannot

include physical contact).

3. Provide a reasonable period of time for the

student to self-initiate with no input. If no

choice is made, provide unrestrictive guid-


4. Provide a reasonable period of time, and if no

response is made, provide partially restrictive

guidance. If no choice is made, provide fully

restrictive guidance.

5. Provide a reasonable period of time, and if no

response is made, choose on behalf of the


6. If at any time in the preceding process a high-

risk choice is made or the choice conflicts with

a prior restriction, negate the choice and pro-

vide more restrictive guidance.

The preceding sequence of prompts makes use of naturally occurring choice situations. This approach is favored because it does not require the student to generalize from training to natural settings. The approach is highly concrete, and all natural cues are available. Finally, this approach is consistent with choice situations most likely to face the learner. Consequently, little time is spent preparing the learner for choice situations that infrequently occur. The largest number of trials are devoted to the most frequently occurring choice situations.


We have presented a rationale for teaching selfdetermination skills and have described a framework for enhancing an individual's choice status. This framework includes a decision model for expanding naturally occurring situations that involve choice. Expanding or restricting the range of choices available to an individual is based on a systematic risk/benefit analysis.

The approach we recommend for identifying a learner's choice status

emphasizes criterionreferenced situation- and setting-specific assessments over other, more traditional, assessment devices. The setting, particular choices involved in that setting, learner's degree of input into making the choice, and potential risks and benefits are all carefully assessed.

Guidelines for teaching self-determination skills to people with disabilities are based on systematic prompt management within naturally occurring situations that involve choice. Simulated training may be used in those situations in which the choice is important, but rarely occurs, or in which a high degree of risk is involved.

The preceding approaches to self-determination address the student's reactions to specific choice situations. Equally important is the learner' s general preparation to benefit from options. As Gardner (1977) emphasized, freedom is the ability to select from a wide range of response options under specific circumstances. He argued that students with limited learning and behavioral abilities may have a limited repertoire from which to draw appropriate responses. Consequently, expanding one's choice status depends largely on the development of skills applicable to choice situations. All prosocial responses developed by parents and professionals may ultimately enhance a student's competence in making independent and appropriate choices in complex and potentially risky situations.


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PATRICK J. SCHLOSS (CEC 4489), Professor and Director of the Office of Research; SANDRA ALPER (CEC MO Federation), Associate Professor of Special Education; and DONNA JAYNE, Doctoral Candidate, College of Education, University of Missouri-Columbia.

Manuscript received October 1991; revision accepted January 1993.
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Author:Schloss, Patrick J.; Alper, Sandra; Jayne, Donna
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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