Self-determination refers to the right to determine one’s own identity, to choose one’s own path in life, and to live as a unique individual. In its most broad sense, this concept includes an awareness of the differences between one’s internal representations (what you think and feel) and external manifestations (what people, other people, and/or objects see or do). Self-determination also involves the ability to live harmoniously with others with whom you identify, and with whom you want to be identified. Self-determination is the power to make your choices; it is your control over your own future. This ability enables you to create an existence that corresponds with who you are as an individual. In essence, it represents your authentic identity or sense of being.
As compared with the concept of disability, self-identity is more problematic because it has been difficult for some people to understand and articulate their personal identity despite the consistent reminders of their uniqueness. For some, defining their self-identity involves making a very large investment in time and interpersonal relationships. However, these feelings of commitment can be undercut by the existence of certain group identities that are built upon shared experiences and values. These shared group identities can give a sense of security and predictability, and the existence of these identities can make a person feel “safe.” There are, however, two fundamental differences between disabilities and group identities: the former require the intervention of a physician or other medical professional, and the latter requires an individual to define and develop his or her own self-identity Disability concerns.
The concept of self-determination is intimately connected to the concept of disability. Many people with disabilities have difficulty determining their own self-identity because of their limited ability to perceive, remember, talk, and behave in many typical ways. As a result, their experiences can be significantly different from those of peers and other people with disabilities. Self-determination, therefore, can be defined as the ability to live a life that is congruent with who you really are. In this way, self-identity may include a sense of personal agency, freedom, and responsibility, as well as the ability to make important decisions about how to lead one’s life.
When a person has a disability that significantly affects the quality of life, it may be necessary to create a new identity for the affected person, rather than just a social identity. To do this, people with self-determinations need to learn new behaviors and modes of thought about themselves and their place in the world. This process can be complicated, frustrating, and even challenging. However, when a person has the insight and desire to make positive changes, the process can be made much easier.
For some, self-determinations are motivated by a desire to fit into society once again. For other people, self-determinations are motivated by a fear of losing their benefits (such as disability insurance) or losing what they consider their freedom. In both cases, the desire to self-determine can result in positive outcomes for people who have a variety of disabilities and a wide range of social ties. When people with disability concerns decide to try out new social settings, they can see first hand if they enjoy being among others. They can also experience the advantages of positive peer pressure and the potential for new friendships.
People with a variety of conditions can still find the opportunity to participate in many of the same activities, if they are able to learn new behaviors and ways of thinking. For example, disabled people who are able to walk can take part in sporting events, take field trips, and go to the zoo. Those who are physically unable to do these things can still have access to many of the same social opportunities. Learning new behaviors and ways of thinking, while navigating the sometimes complicated terrain of change, can make living in any situation much more manageable and possible. Self-determinations are a crucial part of living with a disability.