Since there are many barriers to postsecondary success, it is important that deaf students have an opportunity to practice and develop self-determination skills. For all students with disabilities, self-determination skills have been proven to be an important predictor of outcomes after high school. On this page, we share resources for parents, teachers, and transition specialists to use with children, students, and clients.

What is the Difference Between Self-Advocacy and Self-Determination?

Self-advocacy means advocating for yourself when things get tough, like when you face challenges or discrimination. It’s about standing up for what you need in certain situations. Self-determination, on the other hand, is a broader concept and goes beyond advocacy. It’s not just about standing up for yourself; it’s about having control over your whole life, setting goals, and making choices about school, work, friends, and in other parts of your life.

What is Self-Determination?

Self-determination is about acting or causing things to happen in your life so that you can reach your goals. There are three parts to it: decide, act, and believe.

And it’s powerful: Research shows deaf youth with higher levels of self-determination during high school are more likely to enroll in college, live independently, have positive self-beliefs, make more money at work, and have more opportunities for career advancement. People who are self-determined are good problem solvers because they figure out how to reach goals at school, work, and home, even when they run into problems.

Setting and making plans to achieve self-determination goals needs to be part of deaf students’ transition planning in high school, which should include the use of well-designed and accessible assessments.

What is Self-Advocacy?

Self-advocacy is the ability to articulate one’s needs and make informed decisions about the support necessary to meet those needs. It requires four important elements: knowledge of self, knowledge of rights, communication skills, and leadership skills. For people with one or more disabilities, including deaf people, an increase in self-advocacy skills contributes to an increased quality of life, sense of agency, and overall well-beingSelf-advocacy is a lifelong endeavor that can never be learned too early or too late in life. Practicing self-advocacy is a critical element of the self-advocacy developmental process and people who do it are better prepared to self-advocate in the future.

Recognize and adopt a team effort. Empowering deaf people to self-advocate is a collaborative effort that involves the individual, parents, teachers, vocational rehabilitation counselors, and other disability service providers. Working as a team ensures that the individual has a variety of opportunities to learn and practice essential self-advocacy skills, in particular explaining one’s communication needs and requesting accommodations.

Start the process early. Successful self-advocacy is based on a strong foundation of positive self-awareness and self-determination. When these fundamental self-advocacy skills are emphasized early in life, both at home and in school, the person is better situated to learn and execute the skills associated with being an effective self-advocate.

Promote the understanding of one’s own hearing loss. It is crucial that deaf people understand their own hearing loss and how it affects communication in different environments. Knowing what one’s hearing loss means in various professional or personal contexts is the first step toward effectively explaining accommodation and communication needs and offering creative solutions.

Encourage flexibility to explore what “fits.” Encouraging deaf youth to experiment and learn about accommodations that work best for them increases their familiarity with the range of accommodations and enhances their ability to request, obtain, and effectively use them.

Provide tools that help one identify and understand their legal rights. It is important that deaf people learn and understand the laws related to accommodation. Individuals should recognize how these laws apply in a variety of settings and be able to educate others about “equal access under the law.”

Participate in educational and vocational planning meetings. Individualized education program meetings are an excellent opportunity for high school students to showcase their self-advocacy skills. Individualized plan for employment meetings for people using state vocational rehabilitation services afford adults a similar opportunity. The process of articulating and justifying one’s choices during an individualized education program or individualized plan for employment meeting not only allows the individual to take a lead role in the development of a plan that is in sync with their educational and/or employment goals, but also provides them the opportunity to practice the art of seeking accommodations.

Gain volunteer and school-sponsored work experiences. Requesting accommodations appropriately and reasonably is a vital skill in successful self-advocacy. Participating in volunteer and schoolsponsored work experiences is an excellent venue for practicing this skill. These environments allow people to experiment with a variety of communication strategies in a range of settings and to interact with people who may be unfamiliar with hearing loss in a lower-stakes setting.

Participate in social activities and family outings. Social activities and family outings can be an overlooked opportunity to develop self-advocacy skills. Family members or friends with good intentions often act on behalf of deaf people by requesting accommodations or speaking for them, rather than allowing them to navigate communication options on their own. Encouraging and supporting the individual to self-advocate for accommodation needs without family assistance is critical.

It is important that deaf people interact with role models who are deaf. Role models can share their personal experiences with self-advocacy and offer insight into effective self-advocacy techniques. The impact of exposure to role models cannot be over-emphasized.

Strengthening Self-Determination

Deaf youth often have fewer opportunities to develop self-determination skills. To develop self-determination skills, opportunities to exercise those skills must be available across a range of settings and interactions. All people have potential for strong self-determined behavior but need intentional spaces to make their own choices and practice those skills. Increased opportunities for deaf youth to develop and express self-determination should happen through structured programming and unstructured, ongoing interactions. Structured programming that is designed to strengthen self-determination is most effective when these programs are longer in duration, target many self-determination skills, and provide opportunities to develop these skills in a variety of settings.

Explore Our Resources

Measuring Self-Determination

The National Deaf Center collaborated with Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities to translate the Self-Determination Inventory: Student Report (SDI:SR) from English to American Sign Language (ASL).

This online assessment asks about how youth feel about their ability to be self-determined: to make choices, set and go after goals, and make decisions. Designed for youth between the ages of 13 and 22, it takes approximately 10-15 minutes to complete.

When students complete the assessment, they receive a report about their strengths and areas of need, which can then be used to set goals and develop plans. Additionally, check out our news article about how to assess and support self-determination.

Practice Self-Determination

Encourage students to think about getting ready for life after high school, their goals for continuing their education, getting a job, and living their life. Use the Choose Your Future! Activity Kit to discuss their strengths, interests, and needs. Then empower them to decide on goals that align with those personal preferences.

Deafverse is a free online game that gives deaf youth a safe space to practice applying self-determination skills at home, in school, and in the community. Expansion activities are also available in downloadable Strategy Guides.

Tailored Resources

If You're a Teacher...
  • Introduce your students to the Deafverse game
If You're a Parent...
  • Have your child play Deafverse to practice self-determination skills
  • Watch this deaf adult’s story about access and self-determination
  • Learn tips for supporting your teen’s self-determination skills with our resource designed specifically for families
If You're a Transition Specialist...

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