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Spring/ Summer 2008 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

By Debra Sewell, Curriculum Coordinator, TSBVI

Abstract: At the heart of everything we want to teach our children lies a set of skills that helps them become successful members of our communities. The author describes how family members and educators can foster self-determination in children and young people with visual impairments.

Keywords: blind, visually impaired, self-determination, personal empowerment.

Self-determination is more than social skills, and it is more than self-advocacy. For some students it might be as simple as indicating choices and preferences, and for others, as complicated as determining future careers. Self-determination has been described as “The ability to define and achieve goals based on a foundation of knowing and valuing oneself” (Field and Hoffman, 1994). Some of the major components of self-determination are:img12

  • knowledge of self and others
  • personal management
  • effective communication
  • self-advocacy and advocacy within systems
  • decision-making
  • goal setting
  • problem solving

Professionals in the field of visual impairment have realized that self-determination skills must be explicitly taught. Studies have confirmed that students with disabilities are often unable to advocate for their own needs, wants and desires and are less prepared to make the hard choices and decisions needed to take control of their own lives and become self-determined adults (e.g., Wehmeyer, 1993; Wehmeyer and Kelchner, 1994).

A common goal we all share for our children is for them to enjoy the highest possible quality of life. Therefore, we need to offer the instruction, encouragement and experiences that will allow them to become as self-determined as possible. People who are self-determined purposefully cause things to happen in their lives.

We need to offer instruction in self-determination to all students at all functioning levels. This means we: img13

  • start early with choice-making and hands-on experiences
  • teach and re-teach from pre-school to high school
  • incorporate this instruction into daily activities

Self-determination skills must be taught over the course of a lifetime. They must be integrated into a variety of daily activities, and must be refined over time. Becoming self-determined is not a short-term process that can be packed into a few years. It is an undertaking that is never complete; an undertaking that we should work on our entire lives.

Tips for Getting Started

Knowledge of Self and Others

img14 Give your child opportunities to have a wide variety of experiences so he/she can discover likes and dislikes, and strengths and challenges.

Expose your child to a wide variety of foods, toys and clothing styles in order to increase knowledge of the world and to develop preferences.

Offer structured choices such as a choice between two breakfast foods, two shirts, or two toys so that your child can develop preferences, and exercise personal control.

Give your child information about what other people choose (and why they make those choices if that information is known).

At least once a week, allow time for your child to experience an event from beginning to end (e.g., washing dishes, making the bed, reading an entire passage in print or Braille instead of listening to part of it on tape).

Help your child create a list of strategies when he/she is faced with a challenge.

Help your child find ways to record the things he or she discovers such as preferences, strengths and values (e.g., tactile symbols, Braille, tape recorder).

Create an “All About Me” book that travels and grows with your child throughout the school years. As your child matures, guide him or her to notice changes, trends and patterns in the book.

img15 Encourage your child to dream about the future. What will he or she be doing in 1 year…5 years…10 years? Remember that dreams do not have to be as practical as goals, and don’t worry if they are unrealistic.

Make sure that your child has chores, responsibilities, and deadlines. These things will help him or her to develop a sense of belonging, a sense of self-worth, preferences, and knowledge of personal strengths.

Provide structured opportunities for your child to offer genuine help to others.

Personal Management

Label emotions that are being expressed by you, your child, and others. Describe the facial expressions and/or actions that are used to express the emotions.

Help your child identify indicators of stress (e.g., feeling angry, having an upset stomach, feeling helpless, clenching fists or jaw, tightening and lifting shoulders, feeling upset without knowing why).


Help your child identify causes of stress (e.g., too much stimulation, change, difficulty communicating needs and wants, feeling a lack of personal control, feeling overwhelmed, feeling pressure).

Help your child develop a variety of coping strategies to use in times of stress or anger (e.g., taking a break, listening to music, physical activity).

Teach your child to pay attention to the ways in which others respond to him or her.

Effective Communication

Teach your child to face the person he or she is communicating with.

Teach your child to communicate wants, needs and opinions without being aggressive or pushy.

Teach your child to be sensitive to the messages communicated in tone of voice and body language.

Self-Advocacy & Advocacy within Systems

Teach your child to take turns. From an early age, children need to know that all people need attention, help, entertainment, and a chance to play. Turn-taking helps your child consider others, and also understand that he or she deserves a turn and equal opportunity.

Teach your child to communicate a specific request when asking for help. Making a polite request is a valuable skill. Making it specific defines the role of the helper and leaves overall responsibility and control with your child (e.g. I need help putting toothpaste on my toothbrush vs. I need help).

Teach your child to persevere (e.g., keep trying, look for alternative methods).


Teach your child the difference between making choices and making sound decisions.

Make sure your child has at least one opportunity a day to make a meaningful choice (e.g. clothing, food, playtime activity, etc.).

Structure decision-making opportunities for your child, and allow him/her to make mistakes.

Make a shared decision with your child helping him or her list the pros and cons of the options.

img17 Goal Setting

Allow your child to see you setting and achieving daily and long-term goals.

Guide your child in setting one simple daily or weekly goal (e.g., independently brushing teeth, saying “thank you,” finishing homework).

Problem Solving

Help your child become aware that everyone has problems (children often believe only they have problems).

Teach your child to recognize when there is a problem, and whose problem it is to solve.

Teach your child a simple problem-solving strategy such as SOS: S=State the problem; O=Options; S=Solution


There are many opportunities for children to practice self-determination skills each day. Children with visual impairments or deafblindness need to move and choose and do. They need to be actively involved in, rather than passively moved through, life. Active participation and some degree of choice in their daily routines form the beginnings of self-determination. Experiences that include decision-making, problem solving and goal setting are essential next steps. These experiences provide the necessary context for purposeful intervention and instruction in self-determination skills. By providing experiences, instruction, and access, we can help our children grow into empowered adults who lead satisfying lives.