Can’t Versus Can: The case for teaching Self-Determination and Self-Sufficiency

There are volumes of literature about the transition to adult life and self-determination for people with disabilities.  An article entitled “Advice from Adults with Physical Disabilities on Fostering Self-Determination during the School Years” sparked some reflections about my own upbringing.

The definition of self-determination that resonated the most for me was from the Teaching Exceptional Children article:

Self Determination is a combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior“. 1

Putting aside the academic language and jargon, what does self-determined and goal-directed really mean? Recognizing various differences in culture and families, I think it means learning from modeled behavior regardless of who teaches it.  It means learning and modeling the ethics, conduct, skills, and general behaviors to function and positively interact with family members, peers, friends, educators, and others we meet in school and employment environments, and in the larger community.

Whether I have a disability or not, I had to learn what was acceptable to say or do in a family setting, a school-setting, and a professional setting. The Wiley children learned courtesies of greeting an adult by saying “Hello Mr. or Ms. Smith.” We had structured routines at home.

Specific behaviors were expected at different times. For example, at dinner time you did not talk with your mouth full.  During homework time, homework was done before the television was turned on.  My parents built the foundations of our future by creating structure, teaching limits, and fostering a ‘can versus can’t’ philosophy. That can versus can’t philosophy became critically important in the context of my disability.

Up until the age of 6 or 7, I would frequently ask one of my brothers to go and bring me my canes, backpack, a drink, a snack, or a toy. I  was perfectly capable of walking to get the desired items. Either one of my siblings would initially go and get whatever I requested. For a short time I was lulled into laziness and a false intoxicating sense of power.  I was the older sister.  I enjoyed directing or ordering my brothers to do as I wished.

My brothers initially would do as I asked. It was faster and easier for one of the boys to go and get whatever I wanted. The “go and fetch” routine would soon be broken with a retort of, “Go and get what you want yourself.” My brothers were not paid butlers or servants. My family smartly broke a bad habit that was forming for me.

I was not allowed to use my walking issues for a selfish end. Just because I walked with canes or crutches did not mean I was entitled to special privileges. I was capable of completing and was expected to complete 99 percent of the directives and tasks that were outlined within the Wiley household.

I quickly learned that no one was going to complete tasks for me just because I walked with walking aids. I was expected to do my homework, unload the dishwasher, clean the bathroom, and make my own bed.  My parents set the foundations and expectation of self-sufficiency. If I did not perform an expected task, I lost privileges.

There were other routines established within the Wiley household that instilled and supported self-management skills. We learned the value of education and money early.  For example, half of our weekly allowance was put into a savings account for future college expenses. It was ingrained that the Wiley children would pursue some sort of college degree.

Expectations regarding education, development of vocational skills, and general self-management skills shaped who I would become.  Disability would not be an excuse for why I would not accomplish a task or a goal.

The foundations of self-determination really begin when a positive “can do” philosophy is cultivated and modeled. My parents modeled positive behavior and expected certain behavior for all of their children. Whether a person is a parent, caregiver, or teacher, instilling structure, limits, and guiding choice is what self-determined and goal directed is really about.

Self Determination Resources:

Developed by the Virginia Department of Education, the I am Determined website provides  videos, activities, checklists,
and assessments focused on providing self-determination skills and training to youth.

www.iamdetermined.org

The Pennsylvania Youth Leadership Network (PYLN) developed a Secondary Transition Toolkit.  The toolkit was created by youth with disabilities to help youth in their transition into the adult world.  The toolkit includes  personal stories, information, and activities to help youth in transition take charge of their lives.

http://pyln.org/

  1. Angell, Maureen E.; Stoner, Julia B.; Fulk, Barbara M. (January-February 2010). “Advice From Adults With Physical Disabilities on Fostering Self-Determination During the School Years.” TEACHING Exceptional Children, v42 n3 p64-75.

Challenge by Choice: Inclusion through Project Adventure

Back in 2011, I was walking to get my lunch and passed a young child whose face creased, turned into a scowl, and then the unmistakable question mark appeared. I caught the once over stare as they pulled on their caregiver’s sleeve. I kept walking and heard the audible question; “Why does that lady walk like that?”

The woman tried to quiet the child and move them along. As the distance grew between us; I heard the child’s fading question – “But why does she walk like that and use the sticks?”

The “Why does she walk like that?” or “Why does she do that?” question is an inquiry that I have grown to expect since I have Spastic Cerebral Palsy (CP).  Between the ages of 10 and 13, I received the same types of stares and reactions from my classmates.  My job was to make my peers see me beyond the walking devices.

The concept of inclusion (age appropriate participation with peers) is a concept that been grandfathered into schools and the community over the last several years. I had the fortune of being included before inclusion was a trend.

During my middle school and high school years, I took part in “regular” physical education classes with my peers. I was involved in almost every skill drill, game, and other activity. I never allowed myself to be separated or pulled aside.

Adaptions were introduced only when they were needed. This often translated into a student shadowing me in volleyball or other similar game so that I would not get hit in the face with the ball because I had one hand occupied. I needed to have at least one crutch to maintain balance.

The middle school I attended a ten-week “Project Adventure” course each year. “Project Adventure began as an adventure-based physical education program at a high school in Massachusetts in 1971.” [i]

In 1986, the program was introduced in the middle school I attended. I along with 25 other students in the class learned how to use a belay to ensure a safe and controlled descent in a climb. We learned about tying various climbing knots such as the single loop and double loop knot, and other needed components for a novice climb.

Once mastery of the belay and various knots were achieved, we were challenged to climb a rock wall which then advanced to climbing and descending a second story building. The presented “Building Challenge” included a climb to the top of the school building and then jumping to descend down a zip line.

Outfitted in helmets and our climbing gear, each student proceeded to climb a ladder to end up approximately 20 feet off the ground. Before the climb would proceed, students were reminded of their “full value contract” and of the “Challenge by Choice” principle. [ii]

Each student verbally agreed to a contract which outlined expected behavior and the general values of Project Adventure including choice, teamwork, support, respect, and positive reinforcement. Specific rules and verbal cues for the climb were reviewed and students began the ascent.

My turn came to climb. The most difficult aspect of the challenge for me was going to be the ascent to get to the top of the building. The stiffness in my legs from the CP would make it difficult to climb the ladder steps. My knees would not bend enough for my feet to land directly on the ladder step. Knowing about my flexibility challenges, one of my physical education teachers was poised on the ladder behind me. I would use my upper body strength to lift myself as far and as high as I could and the teacher would manually assist me to raise my legs higher and place my feet on the steps.

I needed the physical assistance to make it to the top. Prior to the climb, my classmates asked “Why is she doing this?” The Teacher’s reply back was, “This is about choice and support.” Students were reminded about their contract and about the “Challenge Model”. The premise of the model is that a student is willing to push beyond their perceived limit in a safe way.

In our Project Adventure contract, students agreed to:
1. Adhere to safety rules and guidelines as delineated by the teacher;
2. Engage in positive behavior, leadership, and sportsmanship; and
3. Engage in “Challenge by Choice”, that is, the participant choses if they will take part in an activity and challenge and how much they will take part in an activity. [iii]

The Challenge by Choice principle underscored my experience with Project Adventure.  As I jumped off the second story building and began to glide down the zip line, I felt like I was flying because I had accomplished what I had set out to do.

After more than 20 years, I still say this school-based program enhanced the development of my self-belief that I could take part in anything. It enhanced my personal autonomy and decision-making. I made the choice to conquer an obstacle and the choice to climb the ladder and jump become much more than the task.

The program also gave me another unique setting to fully participate with my peers. My Physical Education teachers recognized my desire to be included. They orchestrated the strategy to include me. I just needed manual support to assist me to bridge the distance between the ladder rungs and where my legs would land.

[i] http://www.pa.org/
[ii] http://www.pa.org/
[iii] http://www.pa.org/

This article were originally published in 2011 in the “Endless CapABILITIES Blog”, and National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, sponsored by The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (www.nchpad.org). NCHPAD is part of the UAB/Lakeshore Research Collaborative and supported by Grant/Cooperative Agreement Number U59DD000906 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Roadrunner – A Famous Bird and A Memorable Race

The roadrunner is a bird made famous by its name and ability to run up to 20 miles per hour. While the Roadrunner can fly, it stays mostly on the ground. A roadrunner has long, wobbly legs and is often seen as both solitary and unique. There are relevant comparisons between me and the roadrunner. In some ways my experience of disability is solitary and unique. By choice or by circumstance I have had to forge my own path.

The Roadrunner is also the name for several races held throughout the country. One was held each year at my high school. I ran the race almost every year I attended school. There was never any question that I was going to run. The definition of my running might vary depending on the spectator. My running is the combination of foot drag, hiking my hip forward to step, and using my arms to propel.

I’m not the type to shy away from competition. Students from every grade level were required to run up and down grass covered inclines. The distance was a mile. Your speed was timed. Since this was a competition, there was a starting line and a finish line. Running the mile course was a requirement for physical education class. Students were trained to run in an actual race.

I have recollections of four physical education teachers and coaches in their track jackets standing by the starting line and finish line. A big score board-size clock counted down the minutes and seconds. My “run” was as fast of a walk as I could muster. The steps were not a sprinter’s run but a combination of legs and arms.

Since I drag my feet, my sneakers and the bottoms of my pant legs would be covered in mud. Twenty-five other students would run with faster times. My goal was not to get the fastest time. My goal was to finish. There were times when I wanted to be like the roadrunner and run as fast as twenty miles per hour. Running the mile would take me an average of forty minutes from the start to the end.

During the training process, students would run just to get the job done and over with. When my feet touched the ground, I would focus on the green and brown terrain ahead of me. I knew what my base run time was and I was determined to beat it and finish. Despite speed improvements, I would always be the last student to cross the finish line. Training for the race happened over the course of several weeks.

The day of the race I remember that the leaves were starting to change. It was chilly. This time in place of students running or observing on the side line, there were more than 100 people present — masses of kids and adults– runners and spectators combined.

Our coaches and teachers took their place by the start and finish line. The runners took their positions. A horn sounded signaling the start of the race. Like the other runners, I found my rhythm and pace. Up and down hills I went, but instead of the usual quiet, the teachers that were positioned at the start line, were suddenly with me.

I kept moving. My arms moved forward and back like the motion of a skier. My feet and canes carried me across the hilly terrain. I heard “You can do this.” “Keep going.” I reached the halfway point. The teachers didn’t leave me.

All I saw were the brown and green colors of the grass and the slope of the hills as my feet carried me closer to the finish line. My shoes and pant legs were covered with mud, just like every other practice session, and my face and clothes were drenched with perspiration.

The one or two teachers that joined me in the race didn’t seem to see any of that. I didn’t see it. I was just aware of the motion of my body and the desire to cross the finish line.

As I rounded the last bend in the race, the crowd of adults, students and spectators erupted into noise. One of my coaches was egging on the crowd, causing them to get louder. I heard clapping, cheering, and the same encouragement that my teachers were filling my ears with – “You can do it. Go, go, go!” The people who followed me over the course, on the grassy terrain, left me to finish the race. “The last steps are yours!” was their farewell to me as I took the final steps to finish.

I saw that clock with the minutes and seconds. The faces of the people on the sidelines finally came into focus for me. The shouting, the clapping, and cheering did not stop. I finished that mile and it was my best time. Somehow in the harmony of the noise, the time did not matter. I finished. The four teachers who supported me in training for the race came over to offer their congratulations; some people slapped my shoulder or hugged me.

On that day of the Roadrunner race, I discovered what it felt like to be a part of a team. The running that was a cross between a walk and dry land skiing did not matter. Sportsmanship, partnership, and finishing are what I remember the most about that chilly autumn day. Sometimes I can still hear my coaches, saying “You can do it. Go! Go! Go!” and it drives me toward accomplishment. I internalized the outcomes of that race. I wish every student with or without a disability could recognize their own unique and solitary qualities and experience their own Roadrunner race.

This article were originally published in 2011 in the “Endless CapABILITIES Blog”, and National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, sponsored by The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (www.nchpad.org). NCHPAD is part of the UAB/Lakeshore Research Collaborative and supported by Grant/Cooperative Agreement Number U59DD000906 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

An Invisible Separateness

Our culture has introduced the idea of inclusion (age appropriate participation with our peers) for years. Laws support it, schools teach it, and many advocates work tirelessly to bring the concept of disability awareness, inclusion, and participation into schools, workplaces, and general communities.

Despite concrete and respectable efforts, access and inclusion still do not necessarily go hand in hand. I may have access to a facility; however it does not mean that I am made to feel welcome, included, or even that I am considered a patron. I have had more than one occasion where health and service providers have said “We don’t serve people like you.”

My walking devices are a visible marker of disability. The devices that support me to move and walk can place me in a category of “other”. Especially when I was younger, the devices put me in a separate but not equal scenario with my peers.

True inclusion in concept creates a culture of belonging. Inclusion certainly begins with physical and architectural access, (e.g. having ramps, flat surfaces, and doors that are easy to open), yet true inclusion by my definition means I am in the middle of the action. That is, directly involved, in the recreation and leisure activities, participating.

Being present but not equal is not acceptable to me. I want to go into a recreation and leisure facility, where I am able to participate and where I see and interact with a mix of young people, professionals, and seniors. The set-up is not one of fixed ratios but one that encourages interaction, playing, and taking part in whatever a person chooses.

In my youth, the venues for inclusion were the lunchroom or gym classes. Even though I was involved, or took steps to ensure my active participation, I often remember eating lunch alone because I did not know how to relate well to my peers and / or they did not know how to relate well to me.

More than twenty years later, I have witnessed youth with disabilities in more than one venue still sitting by themselves as their peers socialize around them. Placement in a physical setting or situation does not mean interaction happens.

By the time I reach my 60’s I would love to see a culture shift, where I am the patron before the diagnosis. I would love to see an end to categorical terms like “the disabled”, which makes me feel like I should belong to a herd of cattle.

Our culture has created varying levels of access but has also created a phenomenon of invisible separateness for people with disabilities. While trends are changing, we still have ratios that identify a specific number of youth with disabilities that should be paired with a specific number of youth without disabilities, we continue to have specialized programs, and people who are challenged by differences. How can we move beyond the invisible separateness that continues to exist to create cultures of true inclusion?

This article were originally published in 2011 in the “Endless CapABILITIES Blog”, and National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, sponsored by The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (www.nchpad.org). NCHPAD is part of the UAB/Lakeshore Research Collaborative and supported by Grant/Cooperative Agreement Number U59DD000906 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Black and Blue

I started to become aware of the existence of my disability through the stares and general lack of awareness of other people around the age of four. I did not feel different.   I was just a girl who liked long dresses and the color blue.  Other people were aware of my walking differences before I was.

People saw my metal walking braces and crutches as some kind of brand that made me different.  I grew to hate the repetitious clicking sounds from the braces, metal that rubbed on metal every time I took a step.

I really loved long and flowing dresses.  I loved to spin and twirl and watch the material of the dress cast around me.  The dresses also hid the metal braces that I grew to hate.  The devices that supported me to move became a brand that made me different.

People with disabilities are isolated in many contexts –from their peers and from their community due to a lack of awareness about disabilities, lack of access, and a number of other well-documented factors.  I was speaking with a friend of mine who is a trained Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist.  We talked about disability awareness.

Disability awareness is not about being an expert on diagnostic criteria for a particular disability.  It is not about being politically correct or using the terms or descriptors of the moment to describe disabilities.

My friend raised the idea that people have not grasped the concept of people-first.  In my case, I would rather be thought of as a writer or liking the color blue before being identified by disability criteria.

Somewhere in the process of sensitizing people, we have missed it.  People with disabilities do have struggles.  People with disabilities experience pain but that there is a difference between pain – the physical experience of pain and the mental experience of pain compared to pity.
People with disabilities do not want to be pitied.

Somewhere in the process of sensitizing people, we, (parents, teachers, health professionals, service providers, policymakers etc.) collectively have missed something.

There was a time growing up where I did not feel different, but grew to hate tools that help me navigate the world.  When I was Senior in High school I wrote a poem about the experience of my disability – entitled
Black and Blue.

There is something mysterious and enigmatic about poetry.   It is subjective and the reader is left to draw their own conclusions.  I resurrected Black and Blue and it makes the same point as it did years before, but with more complexity-

Black and Blue
Cross legged in the dark
The grip is tight,
A lump rises staring at the missing eye.

Fingers dare not touch the stained flesh
Faces turn behind.
The air,
Clammy,
False from pretense
Turn around.
Ignore the corner,
The missing eye
The twisted leg,
Fingers dare not touch the same flesh.

Cross legged in the dark,
Surroundings are strange.
Tainted is the flesh,
Broken,
Black and blue
Reality is weak compared to illusion.

In the corner,
Staring out of the missing eye
Is there a void?
Black is black,
Look again.
Turn around.
Blue is blue.

The fingers are cold
The flesh is charred and broken
Cross legged,
Alone and weak
Faces turn behind.
Missing eye
Twisted leg
Fingers dare not touch the same flesh.

Disability awareness is about taking the time to see the writer, the athlete, and the person as a whole. Person-first means seeing the writer and the athlete before the disabling condition.

I would like to re-visit the girl who loved to twirl in the long skirts to say I see what you will become and it has nothing to do with the braces.   Black and blue should be colors on fabric, not bruises left by ignorance.

This article were originally published in 2011 in  the “Endless CapABILITIES Blog”, and National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, sponsored by The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (www.nchpad.org). NCHPAD is part of the UAB/Lakeshore Research Collaborative and supported by Grant/Cooperative Agreement Number U59DD000906 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).