How empowered do multilingual students with disabilities feel to make their own choices?

Elisa Garcia & Lynn Newman

Student with disability at computer

In a recent descriptive study of high school students who are multilingual learners (MLs) with disabilities, SRI researchers found that these students attribute fewer self-determination behaviors to themselves than MLs without disabilities or students who are not MLs. Self-determination refers to one’s attitudes and abilities to act as a causal agent and to make choices free from external influence. It is associated with positive post-high school outcomes and includes several essential components, among them:

  • Autonomy: doing what you want to do based on your own preferences, interests, and abilities.
  • Empowerment: feeling able to make choices that are important or persisting even after getting something wrong.
  • Self-realization: feeling confident in your own abilities and knowing how to make up for your own limitations.

Students who are “dually identified” as MLs with disabilities have a wide range of cultural backgrounds, experiences, and diagnoses. Although these students carry many cultural strengths, they also lie at the intersection of two groups that have historically experienced poorer school and post-high school outcomes. For example, MLs with disabilities are significantly less likely than their general population peers to have ever enrolled in a 2-year or 4-year college. To understand to what extent self-determination behaviors that may promote educational and career outcomes differ among groups of students, researchers at SRI Education, along with partners at New York University, recently conducted a study using data from high school student surveys conducted for the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2012.

Here’s how students who are MLs with disabilities differ. Students who were MLs with disabilities attributed fewer self-determination behaviors to themselves than their peers (including students who were MLs without disabilities, students with disabilities who were not MLs, and students who neither had disabilities nor were MLs). MLs with disabilities were more likely than other students to report never acting autonomously–including never choosing gifts for friends and family, planning weekend activities, or choosing restaurants or movies. Most students across all groups rated their empowerment highly, but MLs with disabilities indicated that they were less likely to believe that trying hard in school would result in getting a good job. MLs with disabilities did not differ from their peers in most survey items measuring self-realization except the extent to which they were confident in their own abilities.

Summary of Findings

Self-determination of MLs with disabilities relative to:
Mean scale All other students with disabilities MLs in the general population All other students in the general population
Autonomy subscale Scored lower No difference Scored lower
Empowerment subscale No difference Scored lower Scored lower
Self-realization subscale No difference No difference No difference

“No difference” means no difference between MLs with disabilities and other students.
“Scored lower” means MLs with disabilities scored lower than group in column header.

What does this mean for educators? Although self-determination in this study was measured at one point in time, students’ self-determination can change given appropriate interventions, encouragement, and supports. Teachers can implement practices to promote the self-determination, social skills, and self-advocacy skills of students who are MLs with disabilities, which may lead to improved post-high school outcomes. Additionally, teachers can ask students and their families about how they can support culturally aware practices to promote their sustained self-determination, such as sharing information about independent living and postsecondary education options and financial strategies to support these decisions. Above all, educators must be mindful of the diversity of this population and individualize supports for students and families who vary in their English and home language fluency, race and ethnicity, immigration experiences, cultural values, gender and sexual orientations, socioeconomic status, and degrees of abilities and disabilities. By shifting the focus from what multilingual learners with disabilities cannot do and instead developing practices that build and celebrate their potential for self-determination, educators can contribute to improving opportunities for all multilingual learners with disabilities.

Topics: High school Students with disabilities