Self-determination is a tricky process for people with disabilities because it operates on a continuum. Life is unpredictable, and for the most part–so is disability. But, with self-determination, the person with a disability can regain some level of control and dictate the choices and direction of her life. Self-determination is a concept where a person has the confidence and ability to decide and move forward with the best, next-steps in his own life. Not what you or I think is best, but what they want for their own lives. For many, especially those with disabilities, well-meaning loved ones have in a lifetime of protecting the person with a disability (PWD), have actually kind of sheltered or unintentionally taken control over the life of the PWD.
It’s difficult for loved ones, and I understand that better than most. I have been guilty of being a helicopter constantly propelling what I thought was best over the person I love with a disability. It’s incredibly challenging to shut that off because you love that person and want what is best for them. I know it may seem like I’m asking a lot for you to back down (or if you are a PWD, to take control)…but please, hear me out.
When I was a special educator, and then a rehabilitation counselor (CRC), I saw many students and young adults with disabilities that had their differences in ability. They had skills that needed more developing, skills they were not capable of displaying, and skills that made them unique assets in the best way. However, those unique-asset skills were often under-utilized because they had not practiced them independently on their own incentive or triggering. For example, they could do really well in an interview after having practiced and trained, but they were going on job interviews below their skill level because someone (though again, well-meaning) told them this job would be “so good for you!” Or, they were not going to job interviews at all because their loved ones were really (and understandably) nervous about them putting themselves out there and taking a massive step towards independence.
The biggest limitation in the life of any person is their own belief that they are limited. Yes, of course individuals (with disability or temporarily able-bodied) have to be realistic. I’m not saying someone who has never dribbled a basketball, or someone who has played in a community basketball league–has the skill to try out for the NBA. But I am asking for you to not make assumptions about their abilities or limitations, because when you assume their limitations, they see themselves as inherently limited. Really sit down with the person, and ask him what he would like to learn. Ask him what skills are important for adults to possess. Objectively think of the many skills he has already learned, and try to compare those to the skills he wants to learn.
I am not suggesting that anyone just shut down and remove themselves out of the PWD’s life in one clean break, no longer helping the PWD with anything. It is a process, and of course you will never just be out of their lives–you love them! Nonetheless, self-determination is learned and blossoms in an environment that encourages growth, independence, and inclusion. This is one of the reasons why so many adults with disabilities phase out of the public education system, and wind up under-employed or unemployed. Further, when students learn skills at school relating to independence, they lose those skills if they are not generalized and practiced in the home-environment. And trust me, I completely understand that as a loved one of a PWD you are busy and have many, many responsibilities for yourself and your family. That’s why I want to give you some tools and strategies for encouraging the independence of the PWD so that maybe it can at the same time lessen your work load and empower your loved one.
It is difficult for many people without disabilities to break down the appropriate steps in fostering and empowering independence in a PWD. Every person is different, but here is an example of how one could foster the self-determination process in an adult with a disability (Also: You can reach out to someone who works in this field–like me!–if you want guidance on appropriate steps for a specific person…again, progress is a continuum with steps forward and steps back, and that is okay. This does not have to happen overnight!).
Self-determination skills: Determining food choices
- Watch a cooking show on tv that discusses nutrition and healthy eating
- Practice cooking simple meals in the kitchen with the PWD, emphasizing safety and nutrition (boiling water for pasta, making pasta, cleaning up after making pasta, with canned sauce)
- The PWD cooks on his own while the loved one is not overseeing, but is in the general area in case the PWD has a question
- Show the PWD where to find coupons, and discuss how much food really costs
- Watch tv shows about the health effects of not eating nutritious (but don’t be too scary about it, especially if the PWD is someone who can get easily overwhelmed or experiences severe anxiety–in this case you can discuss food choices in terms that are not so daunting with regards to the health consequences)
- Have the PWD go to the grocery store with you and have him hold the list (if possible, have him read and check off the list as you go–if he is not able to read, that’s okay too! You can sit with him and go through grocery store inserts, pamphlets, magazines, coupon clippings, etc. Just cut those pictures out and make the list out of pictures. You can even draw the pictures!)
- After practicing #6 a few times, and if he is safely independent in public (as in, won’t go with strangers, won’t give his money to strangers, isn’t a harm to himself or others), bring him to the grocery store and have him gather the food on the list while you wait at the front of the store with a book/magazine
- After practicing #7 a few times, practice money skills. Discuss pricing of food and different ways you can make payment. Go through #7 and at the end of each time you shop, have the PWD give the money for payment to the cashier. If the PWD gets nervous, that’s normal. You can go at times when the grocery store is less busy, or teach him how to use the self-checkout line, but ultimately practice will help him feel more comfortable.
- After practicing #8, and if he is safely independent in public, bring the PWD to the grocery store and wait in the car as he shops for the food on the list, and pays on his own.
- Have the PWD make the grocery list on his own, check it over to make sure it covers essential items that are financially-responsible choices.
- If not yet learned, teach the PWD transportation options like the bus. Public transportation systems have disability-accessible bussing but the more inclusive the better (again, depending on the actual, realistic abilities of the PWD). A PWD should live and operate in the least restrictive environment as appropriate. It may take time, and it will be a little daunting for both you and the PWD, but that is a normal part of growing up and in time and with practice, he could gain much independence and allow more free time and balancing of responsibilities for you and your household.
- Have the PWD look up transportation options on his own, and then schedule it on his own, go food shopping, pay, and return home on his own.
- Combine steps 1-12.
Again, this is just a generic example. Some of these steps can be combined or adjusted if the PWD is more advanced, or they can be broken down even more. I’ve broken down the process of making a PB&J into nearly 60 steps before for a client with a disability. The most important thing is that we don’t just give up and do something for a person with a disability simply because it’s the easier and quicker thing to do. Sure, there may be days when you do not have time to pre-teach, teach, and re-teach. When you do have time though, the best way you can love a PWD is by loving their independent drive and spirit. After all, you cannot and will not always be around and in times of need the PWD should feel competent to do as much as he is capable.
This post does not come from a place of judgment. I’ve been there, personally and professionally. I know what it is like to see a loved one go through something difficult and have to maneuver life-changes after the fact. This is just guidance on a tricky part about loving a PWD, and as always I am here if you have any questions! Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for reading and sharing,
Ashley Jacobson, JD, MA, CRC
Disability Expert and Advocate
People with disabilities have proven over the years that they can achieve great academic and vocational success. With the rapid increase in disability diagnoses, and the extension of academic resources and accommodations, students with disabilities are able to demonstrate their vast knowledge and abilities. As such, our world is filled with high-achieving professionals with disabilities.
Unfortunately, professional systems haven’t caught up with the times. Law students with disabilities face more discrimination than most professionals, because part of becoming a lawyer is passing the bar exam, and part of that process is passing the character and fitness portion. Law students are forced to disclose disabilities (mental and physical) and at times medical records, to prove to strangers on the character and fitness evaluation team that they are of good moral character to represent others. By requiring this information, the Bar is assuming that disability is a negative thing–something that students must attest to while proving that “despite their disabilities they can be great lawyers.”
But why does the Bar take that approach? You see, if any person would be a great lawyer, of good character, it would be a person with a disability. People with disabilities face challenges on a daily basis. They are forced for long periods of their lives to adapt to hurdles thrown their way, and compensate for their differences. They understand the ups and downs their clients face–because they have thrived in the face of stigma and discrimination–and they have succeeded in achieving their goals. They have become accustomed to the unpredictability and are quick to problem solve. People with disabilities are persistent and resilient by nature, and have worked incredibly hard to be respected in schools and the workplace.
But the issue of passing the character and fitness evaluation is terrifying law students with disabilities everywhere. Because the thing is, you pay hundreds of thousands of dollars by the time you have finished your legal education, you work hard to ace your exams, you walk across that stage at graduation, and then months later, the state bar decides if you are of good character despite your disability. This is on its face, discriminatory.
A law student at my law school (though at a different campus) is taking a monumental step in suing the Florida Bar based on its issues with his mental disability. This is a veteran, who served our country by working with explosives, who our country deemed was of good enough character to defend our freedom. Yes, like many veterans he came back from a deployment with a mental illness. He dealt with life or death situations while deployed and it’s reasonable that someone in that vocation would return with mental illness. Complicating matters further, he was going through a divorce–known as one of the most mentally straining processes for anyone. Also like many veterans and others dealing with especially stressful and personal life issues, he coped for a period of time by drinking too much.
This student did the right thing by asking for and receiving help when he needed it. He received treatment for adjustment disorder and substance use disorder from the VA medical center. He has been actively going to therapy and maintaining his mental and physical health consistently for a long period of time.
So, in return for asking for help and consistently treating his understandable mental health concerns, when this veteran tried to find a different career serving this country in an alternative way (serving citizens with legal needs), the Florida bar creates a fury of discrimination armed with stigmatic attitudes. They want him to pay thousands of dollars to provide even more medical documentation than he already submitted, and have him
This is an issue that needs to be resolved, and quick. Because the ADA and other related laws dictate that people cannot be discriminated against because of their disability. Disability is a protected class, a class of people who have been historically and systematically discriminated against. For that reason, to right the historical wrongs, the ADA and IDEA and the Rehab Act all were created to dismantle this wrongful discrimination. Yet, the ABA and state bar’s haven’t followed suit.
They have, however, tried to shield themselves from an ADA violation by “encouraging” state licensing boards to focus on the behavior of the law student instead of their diagnosis specifically. However, it is frequent that behaviors can be explained by a specific diagnosis. Without explaining the diagnosis, behaviors can seem confusing to a licensing board. Notably, these licensing boards have infrequent experience with people with disabilities.
Law students with disabilities not only have to prove and substantiate their diagnoses to their law schools to receive reasonable accommodations, they have to do the same for the MPRE, the bar exam, and the character and fitness evaluation. In this sense, they have the cards stacked against them. They remove card by card, proving their character and persistence again and again, in hopes that when they graduate they have a seat at the table. But often, the people who evaluate students with disabilities are hired to evaluate them against their peers without disabilities. They say, “clearly if this student got As in law school, they don’t need accommodations on the MPRE/bar exam because even though this student received appropriate accommodations in law school, compared to the average Joe they still would’ve passed.” The purpose of accommodations is not to pass or beat the average Joe. The purpose of accommodations is that the student can showcase their knowledge in a way that others without disabilities can see.
In this way, students with disabilities are being academically handcuffed by the very institutions that could benefit from their being accepted. Lawyers with disabilities have the unique capability of empathizing with clients, lawyers, judges, etc. They have had to advocate for themselves and their peers repeatedly throughout their lives, and as lawyers advocate and are active participants in legal organizations.
People with disabilities live life differently–they don’t live life incorrectly. For the state bar, the ABA, the MPRE evaluation committee, and law schools to assume that based on past challenges that were addressed by correct treatment, an individual is not of good character is discriminatory on its face.
Disability is one part of a person, it is not the whole person. To not allow a student with a disability to become a lawyer after he addressed and treated his disability is just plain wrong. Who can better serve clients going through hell, than a lawyer who went through hell and came out on the other side?
If the people evaluating individuals with disabilities for the character and fitness see a disability (mental or physical) as guilty of bad character, and make the student prove otherwise, the evaluators are not go good character themselves.
We need to encourage, accept, and support law students with disabilities. However, to historical legal systems apparently that is too much to ask. So at a minimum–just don’t discriminate.
Additionally, this level of discrimination discourages treatment. If you seek help for mental illness, you could be denied your dream career–so you don’t get help. Lawyers are known for heavy drinking and substance abuse. It’s a massive problem in the profession, so much so that law schools are talking with law students about it at their orientations. In fact, if many lawyers practicing in the field for years had to be once again evaluated for their character and fitness, they would fail. In this sense, the ABA and the state bar are not encouraging present or prospective attorneys to seek treatment out of fear of losing a career they worked so hard to obtain. They are also denying respect and fair treatment to students with disabilities, most of which are young and haven’t had decades to prove their stability, but have this used against them that they haven’t been managing their condition long enough for the bar to determine them to be of “good character despite their disabilities.”
It’s time for change in the legal profession, despite the system kicking and screaming in an outdated protest.
To read more about the case referenced above and the ABA recommendations:
For a family that consists of a person with a disability, accessible housing is often at the forefront of their minds but unattainable until their wallets catch up with their needs. In a world that is still largely built for the typically able-bodied, it is challenging to find a house that is accessible. When you can’t move freely around your home, can it really feel like a home?
A couple of weeks ago on the television show Fixer Upper, Chip and Joanna Gaines worked with the Tim Tebow Foundation to renovate a house for the Copp family. The Copps have two young boys, Calan and Lawson, who use wheelchairs for mobility. After Tim Tebow meets with Chip, the show catches steam with Chip, Joanna and Tim meeting the Copps at a baseball diamond. I loved how the boys were shown playing baseball and being active. So often when shows involve people with disabilities and it has a charity angle, they tend to make the people with disabilities look needy to garner sympathy for the people with disabilities and pride for the charity. It was nice showing how empowered and able the boys are, as it showed them doing a typical but cherished childhood activity. It also shows how with the right accessible technology and equipment, people with disabilities can do the same activities as the temporarily able-bodied.
As the episode goes on, Joanna shows the parents the mock-up of the renovations they want to complete for the house. Some accessible aspects of the home: ADA accessible bathrooms with lowered sinks and mirrors that tilt so they can provide a lower angle for the sons who sit lower to the ground in their wheelchairs; a separate lower sink in the kitchen; a table that allows users of wheelchairs to pull right up to it height-wise; hallways wide enough to have wheelchairs pass through without it being too tight; ramps to get in and out of the house; posts and handrails that allow the boys to stand, move and play; and wheelchair-accessible van storage space. The show also highlights an inspirational message in one of the rooms to encourage the boys to continue to grow (*hint* it’s in the title of this article).
This show really exposed the needs of a family that includes people who use wheelchairs. I loved the overall feel of the show. It was a feel-good episode for sure, but it had a very empowering angle. Without giving away spoilers, the show ends with the boys receiving a remarkable backyard that allows them to use their space to their maximum ability and desire. The show brings about an important issue though—a family that has a person with a disability has an unending amount of expenses. Too often, people with disabilities are forced to “make it work” in an environment they were living in prior to acquiring a disability—even if that environment is unsuitable or completely unworkable. A father who uses a wheelchair shouldn’t have to eat in the living room because the dining room table is too short/tall for his wheelchair to fit. A person with a disability shouldn’t have to be carried around their own house when they have the independence through the use of assistive technology to move around on their own. While the Tim Tebow Foundation did a wonderful thing in funding this renovation for the Copp family, the vast majority of families that have a person with a disability in them are forced to pay large amounts of money with or without insurance, even with assistance from government or other financial-assistance programs.
This is why accessible buildings, homes, and other structures must become the norm as opposed to the exception. We must continue to advocate for accessibility, and for reasonable pricing for making a home, car, or other device/structure accessible. Being able to navigate this world with a disability should not be considered a luxury—it is a right. I for one am grateful for shows like Fixer Upper for showing this angle of living with a disability.
Ashley Jacobson, MA, CRC
For details on the show’s episode mentioned above, click below: