David Brown Listen to David Brown’s advice on the three things parents most need to know about self-determination skills for students who are deaf-blind.


So David, why don’t you tell us what three things you would want to ensure that parents know about self-determination skills for students who are deaf-blind or those who are visually impaired and have cognitive disabilities?

I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the phrase “self-determination” means with this population. In my experience, people tend to think it means “transition to adult services and what do we need to do with the student when they’re, say, in their late teens,” and that rather misses the boat. I was an early intervention teacher most of my career in England before I moved to California, and to me, self-determination should begin the day that the child is born. It’s something you do with young babies, and with toddlers, and with kids all through school-age, and with adults in just the same kind of way. You adapt to make things age-appropriate, you adapt for individualized needs, but self-determination should be right at the front of the agenda, in everyone’s mind, all the way through, so that’s the first thing I think. This is not about teenagers and leaving the school system. This is about human beings growing and developing and learning.

Second thing, as part of that misunderstanding, people assume that self-determination means things like finding some kind of job, some kind of paid employment, that it means acquiring your own home on some level, learning to use public transportation, and those kinds of issues. And again, I would say that’s a mistake. It really has to do with the individual’s self-image more than anything else. All those things I’ve just mentioned are important, but to me, they would never be the prime focus of any kind of work on self-determination. I think it should all come from internally in that person: How do they see themselves? Do they have a good self-image? Do they have the confidence to express themselves in a way that is likely to get them what they need and what they want? Do they feel that they can relate to other people in a positive way without either being fearful or overly assertive and aggressive? Or, are they people who’ve given up and are really so sunk in despondency that they just don’t try any longer to communicate? And I think trying to think in terms of self-image is very important, particularly at that early intervention stage. People rarely think of babies having a self-image, but I think all babies are aware of failure, they’re all aware of negative responses, and they all respond well to success—however disabled or non-disabled they are.

And the third thing I would say is that this process is very dependent on the behavior of the main caregivers around the individual. So that these children need to be growing up with people who are observant and responsive and respectful of them—who they are, how they are, what they’re interested in, what they like, what they want, and how they express themselves. And that has to be the starting point and the finishing point of any kind of intervention. I’m a teacher, so my special interest is education, and I do get very tired when people bring education somehow in from the outside and they try and stick it on the child rather than starting with the child and saying, “Who is this person? What does he or she like? What are they into? What do they do? And how can I introduce myself and build a relationship so that they may want to do things with me? And then I can start more of my active teaching.”