Taking Charge: Stories of Success and Self-Determination

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Students with disabilities sharing tips for success

By Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

We often hear about the problems young people with disabilities face—physical obstacles, social rejection, academic failure, and medical crises. Yet some people do overcome significant challenges and lead successful lives. What does success mean to them and how do they achieve it? What internal characteristics do these individuals possess and what external factors have been present in their lives? What advice do they have to help young people build personal strengths to overcome the challenges they no doubt will face?

Included in this brochure are insights from successful young people and adults with disabilities associated with DO-IT. These insights may help young people learn to lead self-determined lives. But what is self-determination? There are many definitions to choose from. The following definition is concise and incorporates a number of common themes found in other definitions.

Self-determination is a combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person 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 to 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. (Field, S., Martin, J., Miller, R., Ward, M., & Wehmeyer, M., Self-determination for persons with disabilities: A position statement of the division on career development and transition," Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 21(2), 113-128.)

Gaining control over your life involves learning and then successfully applying a number of self-determination skills, such as goal setting, understanding your abilities and disabilities, problem solving, and self-advocacy. The personal process of learning, using, and self-evaluating these skills in a variety of settings is at the heart of self-determination.

The content of this publication is organized around advice synthesized from hundreds of responses of the successful young people and adults with disabilities who contributed to the following topics:

Perhaps young people with disabilities will find the experiences of others useful as they set their course toward successful, self-determined lives.

Define success for yourself.

People define success in many ways. Several successful people with disabilities use these words:

Set personal, academic, and career goals. Keep your expectations high.

Below, successful young people and adults share their views about how they set goals and maintain high expectations:

Understand your abilities and disabilities. Play to your strengths.

People with disabilities who consider themselves successful generally accept their disabilities as one aspect of who they are, do not define themselves by their disabilities, recognize that they are not responsible for their disabilities, and know that they are not inherently impaired. They recognize their responsibility for their own happiness and future. Below are insights from successful people with disabilities:

Develop strategies to meet your goals.

Successful people use creative strategies to reach their goals. They look at options and make informed decisions. Successful planning requires that you know your rights and responsibilities and strengths and challenges; set goals; work toward those goals; and use tools and resources available to you. One key skill for success is self-advocacy. Being able to self-advocate requires that a young person become an expert on their disability, know what specific services and help they need, and be able to use strategies to obtain this help and support. One's life should not be defined by the assumptions of others. Insights by successful people with disabilities are shared below.

Use technology as an empowering tool.

Being technologically competent has become an avenue to academic and career success. Computer technology is one of the most powerful tools available to individuals with disabilities. Technology, including computers, adaptive technology, and the Internet, can help maximize independence, productivity and participation. It can lead to high levels of success—personally, socially, academically, and professionally. As reported by successful individuals with disabilities:

Work hard. Persevere. Be flexible.

Knowing and valuing yourself, setting goals, and planning help build important foundations, but action is required to make your dreams come true. To take control of your life it is necessary to choose and take appropriate action. Take charge. Move forward. Sometimes students with disabilities need to work harder to achieve the same level of success as their peers. As reported by one student who is blind:

I accepted the fact that I must work harder than other students to get the same grade.

But, learning to work hard has a positive side:

Sometimes I think that all of us with disabilities have an advantage over those who have things come easier to them. Whatever it is we want, we have to want it and then work for it. That necessary desire promotes drive to accomplish, succeed, or achieve. Others around us may be content to float, or do the minimum most of the time, but not us. For us, having what everybody else has is an accomplishment, and having tasted success we want to keep succeeding.

The willingness to take risks is critical to achieving success. As reported by one young person with a mobility impairment:

I keep going when people tell me I can't. I am not afraid to try things and I don't give up. My parents took me everywhere and I did everything like a normal kid. I have a good friend from kindergarten who is able bodied, and she knows me so well that we do all sorts of stuff that people might not think I could do, but we come up with a flexible plan and we do it.

Advice about risk taking from successful people with disabilities includes:

Develop a support network. Look to family, friends, and teachers.

Successful adults with disabilities report that they were supported in youth by opportunities for inclusion, high expectations from adults, disability-related accommodations that de-emphasized their differences, promotion of autonomy, encouragement of friendships, and support from caring adults. On the other hand, their progress was inhibited by segregation, treatment that highlighted their differences, restricted opportunities for independence, social isolation, and social rejection.

Below, successful individuals with disabilities share examples of how they stay actively involved.

No one achieves success alone. The comments below provide examples of how successful individuals with disabilities have found, accessed, and used resources to help them achieve success personally, socially, academically, and professionally.

Videos

This brochure summarizes content that is covered in the DO-IT video series: Taking Charge 1: Three Stories of Success and Self-Determination, Taking Charge 2: Two Stories of Success and Self-Determination, and Taking Charge 3: Five Stories of Success and Self-Determination. An online version may be freely viewed at www.uw.edu/doit/Video/, or purchased in DVD format.

About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.

To order free publications or newsletters use the DO-IT Publications Order Form; to order videos and training materials use the Videos, Books and Comprehensive Training Materials Order Form.

For further information, to be placed on the DO-IT mailing list, request materials in an alternate format, or to make comments or suggestions about DO-IT publications or web pages contact:

DO-IT
University of Washington
Box 354842
Seattle, WA 98195-4842
doit@uw.edu
www.uw.edu/doit/
206-685-DOIT (3648) (voice/TTY)
888-972-DOIT (3648) (voice/TTY)
206-221-4171 (fax)
509-328-9331 (voice/TTY) Spokane

Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

DO-IT Funding and Partners


Acknowledgment

Funding for the creation of this publication was provided by Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, a non-profit foundation jointly funded by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation of Japan and its American affiliates with the mission of contributing to a better world for us all by helping young people with disabilities, through technology, maximize their potential and participation in society.

Copyright © 2012, 2010, 2008, 2006, 2005, 2001, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.