Guest Author - Monica J. Foster
The ability to self-advocate is important for children and young adults to learn. It helps them to be successful at all stages and areas of life. In the past, self-advocacy was a term applied mostly to adults with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities, but recently more focus has been placed on teaching this skill to people with all disabilities, and especially teenagers.
Self-advocacy is about knowing your strengths and needs, identifying your personal goals, knowing your legal rights and responsibilities under the law, and communicating these things to other people around you. Because child lives with a learning disability, they may struggle on a daily basis, but the child must learn how to maneuver through life's challenges and obstacles to make sure all his or her needs are met.
Until now, the parent has been a child's best advocate - protecting them from the harsh realities people with disabilities face in life. But the earlier parents teach a child or teen to practice self advocacy, the better prepared that individual will be for the life ahead, no matter what path is taken after high school. Whether in the workplace or on a college campus, teens and young adults must understand their strengths and limitations, know how they affect school and job performance, as well as be able to communicate this to other people.
Young people may say they need to understand how they learn and be able to express this information in plain English. A teenager must be aware of his strengths and needs in the learning process, strategies that will bring the most successful outcome, necessary accommodations that minimize the barriers, and the type of environment that maximizes learning success. To gather this information, a young adult should review assessment results with the specialists in charge of doing specialized tests and assessments. Talk to teachers and tutors, and reflect individually on specific learning challenges, successes, and preferences.
Self-advocacy's key feature is knowing how to communicate strengths and needs to others. A child must be able to clearly requests what is needed and be prepared with explanations for those accommodations. The manner in which self advocate communicates can either get others on his side or push them away, so learning to be tactful, but polite is important. What a student may be asking could be news to that person. The teenager may need parents' help preparing ahead of time, planning what to say and how to say it and practice it, as well as making notes to take along to the talk with that person. Role playing is a great way to practice. Parents should be able to help the teen anticipate different situations, and raise the level of confidence going into the discussion.
It's important to help a young adult identify the available support system early on. Answer questions such as: Who do I trust and feel comfortable talking to - parent, relative, teacher, administrator, counselor, mentor, tutor? Have a list of people he can turn to for help, especially once a young adult leaves home -- for the day, the weekend, or long-term going away to school. This way he won't have to feel alone as he navigates through life.
High school is a great place to begin practicing communication with teachers and other school staff in a respectful way. Encourage a student to set up conferences with his teachers to talk about his progress just as a parent would do. Give the self advocate an opportunity to discuss what's going well and what isn't working. The meeting will help the self advocate get feedback, and to work out a plan to do better. After all, once a young, growing self advocate leaves high school and enters the workplace or college, this will have to be done independently on a regular basis. Parents may not be able to call a professor or boss. Pass the advocacy torch and all its responsibilities to the self advocate.
If a new self advocate has been formally identified with a learning disability (LD) or diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), he or she may be protected under federal law. A young adult should learn if he or she is covered under laws and what entitlements are specified. Here is a listing of some of the legislation and laws to look into and be aware of:
•Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is an education law guaranteeing special education and related services to eligible children with disabilities.
•Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a disability in programs that receive federal monies.
•Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public services, and accommodations.
If a self advocate is covered under any of these laws, that self advocate has certain rights and responsibilities. A student with a learning disability who has an individualized education plan (IEP) and receives special education services is protected under IDEA until he graduates from high school with a diploma. Section 504 and ADA may protect him in college by providing "reasonable accommodations." In the world of work, an adult with a disability is most likely protected under ADA.
A great way for a self advocate to build self-advocacy skills is for the self advocate to attend and participate in meetings to develop an IEP or 504 Plan. A self advocate will learn how the school plans to help promote success and hear the reasons behind each of these recommendations. IEP meetings give a self advocate an opportunity to share his own goals and have them included. With a parent present, these meetings become safe dress rehearsal for discussing a self advocate's strengths, interests, talents, and needs with school staff.
By age 16 (if not well before then), a student who receives special education services will be invited to attend an IEP meeting to develop an Individual Transition Plan (ITP) for life beyond school. Self advocates have an opportunity to express their interests and goals for the future at this time. The transition plan is designed to help students move smoothly from high school into life's next adventure. It doesn't matter hether that's work, college, or another area of interest, and may include making connections with other agencies and representatives from the community or gathering tools to plan for college and the world of work.
Throughout high school and beyond, a self advocate will face many situations where educating others about their learning disability will be necessary. Peers will ask questions about the "special attention" a self advocate receives at school. Teachers unfamiliar with self advocate's needs must be taught more about how the student learns. On the job, a self advocate may require a specific work-related accommodation. At times, these situations may feel uncomfortable, but the more self-knowledge a self advocate has, the better a self advocate will be at practicing self advocacy with confidence and interacting with others socially.
By empowering children and young adults to self-advocate, parents and other support professionals will help the growing self advocate develop skills necessary for success in learning and life. Encourage self advocates to take time regularly to reflect on how things in life, work and school are going. One exercise that might be helpful is to make a list of "positives" on the left side of a sheet of paper and "things that need improvement' on the right side. This will help a self advocate put things in their proper perspective, learn and grow forward. If something isn't going right, a self advocate will be better equipped to decide what action to take next to improve the situation. Using self-evaluation often is where the greatest learning takes place whether a person has a disability or not.