All people, although created differently, deserve equal rights. To deny an individual with a disability these inalienable rights is to discriminate and to judge and, in my opinion, is not just. In “No Pity”, Joseph P. Shapiro argues that individuals with disabilities are entitled to civil rights. This would include the right to self-determination, or having the freedom to make decisions and set goals for oneself.
As human beings, we all experience difficulties and failures. Hopefully, we often learn from our mistakes. Are we who are without “disabilities” prevented from trying that which is important to us because we aren’t capable of performing every skill possible at 100%? If, as a teacher, I am adept with classroom management and lesson planning, but have trouble with assessment, does that mean I shouldn’t teach?
Or can it be perceived as an opportunity to work extra hard at that which is missing for me? Why not allow those within our community who have issues of impairment to have that same freedom? Who are we to say that they cannot take risks? And aren’t those who wish to “protect” them really hurting them, even “crippling” them in the long run? Perhaps those with disabilities would be more careful in their decision-making and not as impulsive because they most likely wouldn’t take the right of self-determination for granted.
I believe that to coddle someone with a disability can result in holding him or her back from achieving that which s/he is capable of. Holding someone to high expectations helps him/her reach greater goals. In the movie, “Ray,” about Ray Charles, there is a powerful scene, based on truth, which is an excellent example of this thinking. Ray has gone blind, and after a fall, repeatedly calls to his mother for assistance. Just a few feet away from him, she remains still and silent, as he struggles, and finally finds his way, he discovers his sense of sound as he has never previously experienced it. Because she refused to enable him, he developed the strengths necessary to take care of himself and make his way in the world.
Before I started teaching children with special needs, I was told not to expect much progress from my students. Then I remembered the time my mother was informed that I would not be able to walk or see out of my right again as the result of a car accident I suffered at six years old. Luckily, mom kept that information to herself, insisting I would both walk and see, pushing me to work hard at achieving those goals, which I did. I carry this philosophy with me into the classroom. I tell my students that they cannot give up . . . they must try harder, much harder than students without similar issues. And last year, I proved my philosophy correct in the enormous progress all students demonstrated.
According to Kelly R. Socha, a person with spina bifida, “neither parents nor my teachers focused on my disability . . . I believe that quality education for all youth with disabilities need o include having the same opportunities as all youth . . . My parents also held high expectations for me at home . . . I was not afraid to take those risks because people were always telling me I could do it!” He goes on to advise to “treat kids with disabilities no different than anybody else.” (NCSET, 2002)
We have many supportive services and equipment to allow individuals with various disabilities to achieve their goals, whether they are ramps for wheelchairs, keyboards for typing, Seeing Eye dogs, or Braille computers. In today’s technological age, much is possible. There are assistive devices that answer to just about every need.
I believe there is a place for everyone within society . . . we usually choose our life path based on our personal interests and strengths. People with disabilities have strengths as well. I believe that we must find each person’s individual strengths and desires and develop them, guide them to finding their purpose. Of course, we must take any weakness into account that could be an obstacle and determine what needs to be adjusted. The necessary technology and/or training could then be provided to insure success.
And, if a personal goal is not positive or appropriate according to the community, then we need to ask guiding questions in order to assist the individual to consider and visualize consequences of those goals. Perhaps the questions could uncover a new goal.
Some might ask if self-determination is possible with those who have significant cognitive disabilities. There are plenty of examples of people with autism living independently and working successfully. New Horizons in New Jersey teaches “people with autism the skills and behaviors necessary to live, recreate and socialize, engaging in a normal life style.” (n.d.) At ASMC in North Carolina, “residents receive specialized training in communication, recreation, appropriate social behavior, self-help, and community living skills.” The Life Center for Independent Living provides supports for all disabilities.
So, one might say, what about those with severe physical disabilities? Amanda Dahoff is an example of a success story with regards to this. She explains, “the only student in my school with a significant physical disability . . . I had to help people understand what I needed and why. . . I advocated for my rights . . . set the tone for the rest of my educational experience . . . I asserted my intention in spite of the obstacles. (NCSET, 2002) Having completed college with a degree in the concentration of her choice, she is now working in the field of her choice.
One might say that Amanda was able to convey her goals effectively. What about those with disabilities which prevent them from communicating successfully?
Maybe the problem isn’t with how they communicate, but with how we listen, or perceive the message. Many have pre-conceived notions regarding particular disabilities, and will continue to find evidence for that which they already hold to be true, just by virtue of the fact that they are always seeking it.
Others may think self-determination unlikely for those with hearing or visual impairments. In the Morgan, Bixler, McNamara article, “Self-Determination for Children and Young Adults Who Are Deaf-Blind,” it is mentioned that having a relationship with the environment is important for self-determination to occur. They include the opinion that “one must interact with the environment through observation in order to get information . . . make changes and decisions based on feedback from the environment.” (Abery, 2001)
Morgan, Bixler, McNamara answer to this by suggesting that one does not have to be “completely self-reliant” for self-determination to occur, and that interdependence is an option. To say that these people do not have proper access to the environment is a judgment. It is not their perception of the environment that needs to be adjusted, but ours. They do have access to the environment . . . they are just going in and out of a different door, in a different manner.
Many would fear that self-determination for individuals with severe emotional disabilities could be risky. Perhaps they are not aware that teaching those with emotional disturbances self-determination skills can actually help to raise their esteem, which very often is the root of their problems to begin with. Self-determination may actually allay the psychological impairment. With this population, one could use guiding questions to support responsible decision-making. Another idea is to employ goals to manage their behavior (i.e., if you want to achieve “X,” you will first have to do “Y” and “Z,” etc.
Of course, there are those that would be concerned with safety issues that arise as a result of individuals with impairments becoming self-determined. I say, who on earth is truly 100% safe? We all take risks everyday, just by stepping outside our doors (and sometimes inside as well). With additional supports and careful planning, risks for those with disabilities can be lessened. I believe that living fully and taking risks is greater than living safely but with fear and no experience of life. Is that living? Isn’t living to risk?
Finally, many would be concerned about the cost of people with exceptionalities living and working independently in our society. In reality, it may benefit our communities to employ workers with disabilities.
According to the UK Employer’s Forum on Disability, “workers with disabilities are more punctual, are absent less and tend to be more loyal.” “Research shows that the cost of accommodating disabled people is actually much lower than what people think.” (Fletcher, n.d.)
In my opinion, it would cost us much more as a people to deny these people their civil right to self-determination, than to take the risks inherent and make the necessary adjustments to support such thinking. And the cost I’m referring to is not a financial one.
Easen, Nick. Jobs for Disabled Means a Good Deal [Electronic version]. (2004, April) Retrieved November 16, 2004 from http://cnn.worldnews.com
Life Center for Independent Living: What Independent Living Means (n.d.) Retrieved November 16, 2004 from www.lifecil.org/independent.php
Morgan, S., Bixler, E., McNamara, J. (2000) Self-Determination for Children and Young Adults Who Are Deaf-Blind In. The National Technical Assistance Consortium for Children and Young Adults Who Are Deaf-Blind
National Center on Secondary Education and Transition Information Brief. (2002, December) Vol. 1 Issue 5. What is Quality Education? Perspectives from Two Students and a Parent.
Resources for autism, developmental delay, disabilities and special education residential schools and homes (n.d.) Retrieved on 11-16-04 from http://trainland.tripod.com/residential.htm
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