Citizenship and Self-Determination for Individuals With Cognitive Disabilities: The Interdependence of Social Studies and Special Education

Summer, 2010

Source: Action in Teacher Education, V. 32 no. 2 (Summer, 2010), p. 4-11.

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Citizenship is a belief that all members are active participants in society (Connors & Donnellan, 1993). For individuals with cognitive disabilities, this participation in society as citizens has shifted from one of marginalization and disenfranchisement to one of inclusion. This shift has resulted in the need to understand and value the accompanying rights and responsibilities (Connors & Donnellan, 1993; Smith &. Tyler, 2010).

This article examines the ways to implement citizenship education in educational settings for individuals with cognitive disabilities.

Cognitive Disabilities, Citizenship, and Self-Determination

The identification and classification of disabilities in the educational setting is determined by legislation and guided by research, practice, and professional associations.
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 2004 reinforces the importance of postsecondary outcomes to participation in society; it mandates that schools make transition plans to integrate individuals with cognitive disabilities into society.

For their successful integration into society as contributing citizens, individuals with cognitive disabilities need self-determination skills such as autonomy, making choices, and self-regulation to be infused throughout their curriculum, and they should begin learning such skills as early as possible.
Self-determination skills are not learned in isolation; rather, they are learned in various settings where individuals with cognitive disabilities are given multiple opportunities to practice.
Furthermore, successful integration into society begins with and requires careful planning, which must include both the family and the individual with cognitive disabilities.

Implications for Teaching Citizenship through Self-Determination

Educators should teach the individuals with cognitive disabilities skills that promote goal setting, problem solving, and decision making that allows them to participate in the planning (Wehmeyer, 2002).
Knowledge and awareness about rights, responsibilities, and community law are essential components of a citizenship curriculum. Governmental structures and voting also become an integral part of the curriculum. Providing the individuals with cognitive disabilities with knowledge regarding their rights as citizens empowers them such that they can take an active role in their future and expect to be treated with dignity and respect.

However, citizenship cannot be taught in isolation or without community involvement. For individuals with cognitive disabilities, it is imperative that citizenship be promoted through self-determination skills learned within the context of the community (Geenen et al., 2001; Kim & Momingstar, 2005).


Connors, J. L., & Donnellan, A. M. (1993). Citizenship and culture: The role of disabled people in Navajo society. Disability, Handicap & Society, 8(3), 265-280.
Geenen, S., Powers, L. E., &. Lopez-Vasquez, A. (2001). Multicultural aspects of parent involvement in transition planning. Exceptional Children, 67(2), 265-282.
Kim, K. H., & Morningstar, M. E. (2005). Transition planning involving culturally and linguistically diverse families. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 28(2), 92-103.
Smith, D. D., & Tyler, N. C. (2010). introduction to special education: Making a difference (7th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.
Wehmeyer, M. L. (2002). Self-determination and the education of students with disabilities. Arlington, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education.

Updated: Jan. 25, 2012