Guest Author - Monica J. Foster
Self-advocacy is an important skill in school, work, and life. Before talking to anyone else, however, ask yourself some very important things and ask yourself over and over periodically so you know if you are being an effective self advocate. Do you understand and acceptance yourself as you are? Can and do you take responsibility for your actions? Do you know your rights? Do you understand the systems that run programs you need to support you? Do you know how to find available resources to help you be independent? Do you understand your personal needs? Can you set and achieve goals in your life? How about being assertive? Do you know how to be persistent if you feel you aren't being heard?
There are many steps to being a better self advocate, but there are ten steps that are essential to anyone, regardless of what your disability may be.
1. Accept your disability. Before you can advocate for yourself, you have to admit to yourself that you really do have a disability regardless of when or how it took place. You aren't dumb or less able than anyone else. You aren't lazy. You have probably worked very hard to get where you are. Now is the time to admit you have challenges and may need some particular help to be successful.
2. Admit your disability to others. You cannot be a successful self-advocate if you continue to hide your difficulties from other people. You can't expect teachers and supervisors to provide appropriate accommodations if they don't know about your disability. Also, it is just as important to be able to admit your difficulties to your friends. When you can really be honest about your disability, you will find that you will no longer feel shame or embarrassment about your challenges. By being open, you can spend more time relaxing and having fun in life rather than staying tensed up and in hiding.
3. Understand your learning style if your disability is a learning disability. Hopefully, you now have a pretty good understanding of how your mind works and how your learning style impacts school and work. We all have different learning styles. Some of us learn better by hearing. Others are more visual or prefer a hands-on approach. How do you learn new things best? If the ideas offered in don't help it all make sense, ask for help in understanding better or ask for other ideas about information processing that might fit you better. If you don't understand how you learn, you can't ask for accommodations that you really need.
4. Realize how other issues might interfere with your self-advocacy. You have learned about the common effects of a disability including low self-esteem, communication difficulties, various accommodation needs and more. Think about how these issues might interfere with your ability to advocate for yourself:
Are you too shy to ask for help?
Are you easily embarrassed or frustrated?
Can you communicate your needs or do you need to ask someone (teacher, support staff, parent, or friend) to help you ask for accommodations?
Are you impulsive and tend to say or do things that you wish you hadn't later?
It's important to be open and honest about any of these issues to strengthen your ability to be an effective self-advocate.
5. Know what you need!
Are all your needs being met in your community, at work, at school, at home, with your family, with your service providers, medical professionals? Can you think of other accommodations that may work for you better? You don't know if better is available until you ask! Never assume.
It's impossible to anticipate ever single need your disability will present all at once, but you'll figure out what works best over time. You'll need to come up with some ideas of your own along the way. And it's okay to seek suggestions from others in your situation!
Anticipate your needs in class, at work and in meetings. Don't wait until the last minute to worry about accommodations. As soon as you take on a new class, new work project or responsibility, be mindful of possible things you'll need to be more successful.
6. Right from the start of each class or work project, you should be thinking about how you might be able to learn the material better. Maybe the instructor has a style that confuses you. Maybe there are too many distractions in the room. Maybe assignments aren't presented clearly to you. Begin talking with your teachers and supervisors about accommodations as early as possible. The earlier you begin talking, the sooner your needs can be met and the lesson tweaked so you can participate better.
7. Know your rights and responsibilities. Are you really prepared to argue your rights with a teacher or supervisor that may be "reluctant" to provide appropriate accommodations? Run scenarios in your own mind so you know what you'll be able to do and say if a problem arises. Do you know where to turn for support when your needs are not being met? Remember, accommodations are intended to counteract the negative effects of your disability, not just make school or work much easier. Don't take advantage of your rights to accommodations and access by requesting things you don't really need. This isn't about creature comforts. It's about being fully included at school and work.
8. Open yourself to compromise. Some teachers and supervisors will bend over backwards to accommodate your needs. Others will be less flexible. Be ready to compromise in order to get at least some accommodations met. You may also need to prove to a teacher or boss that you really need help and are not just being lazy. If you strike an agreement with your teacher or supervisor, be sure to follow-through with everything you have agreed to do. This helps to build trust between you both.
9. Know where to go for support. Sometimes even an effective self-advocate needs support when a difficult situation needs to be talked about. Find someone else who understands your disability, what you want and need and who can provide support when you need it.
10. Plan for the future. Many people with disabilities just try to survive one day at a time and don't think too much about long-term goals. But to really advocate for yourself, you need to think about where you want to be in one, two, five, or ten years.
Think about the questions you have in mind. What kind of work do you want to do after you graduate? Will you seek a higher degree in college than what you already have? Do you want to work full-time? Do you want to be a homeowner? Do you want a more friends? Do you want a relationship, or to date? Do you want to live somewhere else? Do you need more supports to get you where you want to go? Does your community fully engage you as a citizen with a disability? Where could you be more involved and have a voice?
When you have a very clear plan for the future, you will be better able to see the reason for all the steps you are taking today to achieve them. Whether you have a disability or not, a good plan of action is always good to have.