How to Harness the Power of Student Self-Advocacy to Drive IEP Outcomes

by Keri Huddleston and Mary Pembleton

Student on computer next to teacher with Co:Writer on the screen

Self-advocacy is commonly listed on a student’s IEP plan, and it’s a wonderful goal to include because effective self-advocacy skills can benefit students with learning disabilities across a lifetime.

Take the story of Ptahra Jeppe, for example. Ptahra is a dyslexic disability rights lawyer with a fourth grade reading level. She not only made it through law school and passed the bar exam, she graduated magna cum laude and was inducted into the Order of the Coiff, a prestigious honor society for law school graduates.

Ptahra Jeppe graduation

Ptahra attributes her accomplishments to having the tools, including rock-solid self-advocacy skills, which she says she learned from her parents.

There’s data to back this up: several small studies like this one suggest that self-advocacy training for students with disabilities improves the likelihood of postsecondary education, employment, and independent living.

Self-advocacy is a concept most of us are familiar with, but what Keri Huddleston, an SLP, AT specialist, and consultant with nearly 30 years of experience, often finds is that IEP teams miss the fact that self-advocacy is a complex, advanced skill that requires explicit instruction and practice.

Keri Huddleston

When students with learning disabilities are expected to self-advocate, but not explicitly taught how to do that, there’s a missed opportunity to equip those learners with skills proven to help them succeed.

But how, exactly, can hard-working IEP teams, already bogged down with myriad responsibilities, find the time to prioritize teaching yet another, albeit critical, skill?

The good news: if you work in special education, you’re probably already laying the foundation for excellent self-advocacy skills, so it may only require a few extra steps to add self-advocacy instruction to the agenda.

In this article, Keri walks us through what self-advocacy is and relays a workable plan to teach learners to be strong self-advocates.

Self-advocacy: a definition, a history, and why it’s so beneficial

Put plainly, self-advocacy is the ability to recognize a need, identify a solution, and stand up for oneself.

Student with teacher working on a laptop

It’s purported that the term originated with the disabled community in the 1960s. According to Syracuse University’s The Center for Public Policy, the expression was initially adopted in Sweden among people living with intellectual disabilities who organized to advocate for better treatment.

People with great self-advocacy skills will have insight into their personal needs, knowledge of what types of supports help them, and the ability to effectively and assertively communicate their needs in various environments.

This is precisely how Ptahra Jeppe approaches employers. First, she defines her struggles, then, she explains the tools that she uses to address them, and finally, she lets them know how they can support her.

“If I showed up to the job and I was like, so I can’t read, and then didn’t follow that with anything, they would be like, ‘Well what do you want me to do about that?’” she says.

“But if I come to you and I say, I’m dyslexic, but I use Snap&Read and Co:Writer for speech-to-text and text-to-speech in order to do my job, and I request that they send me documents and agendas ahead of meetings so that I can read them with text-to-speech, every employer I’ve had is like, ‘Okay great! Do you need me to do anything else?’”

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Ptahra is well-versed in her strengths and weaknesses, she knows what tools and strategies work for her, and is able to confidently assure employers that her deficits will not hinder her ability to do excellent work. This is a prime example of how teaching learners with disabilities robust self-advocacy skills will empower them to do whatever they want in the world.

See how Snap&Read helps learners with dyslexia read and write here.

“The goal is to have learners eventually be able to enter a high school classroom, or a college classroom, or a potential work environment and tell the teacher, professor, or employer that I have an accommodation,” says Keri Huddleston.

“They have to be really competent in order to do that. So we first have to develop those competencies.”

Below, Keri explains how to help learners to do just that.

How IEP teams can teach self-advocacy skills to students with learning disabilities:

1. Start by thinking long-term

If we want to set a student with learning disabilities on a trajectory of success, it’s helpful for IEP teams (including the learner) to start by understanding that student’s interests and goals.

Where does the learner want to go? What are their career goals? How can they get there? Once these questions are addressed, we can start to understand what particular skills, knowledge, and tools they will need.

For example, if a student with dyslexia wants to go to college and needs accommodations, then we would consider the following:

  • Ensure they understand the process and standards of documentation to access disability services at their college
  • If they have an IEP or 504 plan, we need to be certain it is well-written and reflects their diagnosis, educational impact of disability, and the accommodations they require/are effective for them (requires advocacy and self-advocacy)
  • Ensure they understand the interactive process for determining accommodations at college and their role in that
  • Help them develop and practice self-advocacy skills for negotiating accommodations as well as utilizing them for college success

2. Once you’ve set the goal, build on platforms you already have in place

Whether you’re a practitioner, educator, or administrator, you’re likely already incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL) and/or Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles into your approach to education. And that pre-existing foundation is a fabulous platform on which to start to build self-advocacy skills. Here’s why:

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL):

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s SEL Framework, there are five core SEL competencies. They include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills.

Illustration of how SEL, UDL, and Self-Advocacy combine

These competencies overlap with self-advocacy in that before you can ask for what you need, you must have insight into your strengths and challenges, you must be able to self-regulate in order to translate your needs into solutions and strategies and communication, etc. All of these social-emotional competencies directly feed requisite skills for effective self-advocacy.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL):

Universal Design for Learning principles—engagement, representation, and action & expression—also build self-awareness and agency. When a student is able to:

  1. Gain insight into their interests
  2. Engage with learning
  3. Understand their strengths and challenges
  4. Integrate tools and strategies into their learning environment, there’s a good chance they’ll come to understand what tools, strategies, and learning styles work for them

For example, if a learner has dysgraphia, and assistive technology is available to all learners or even integrated into the curriculum, they may intuitively discover that a writing program like Co:Writer helps them get their words on paper. With the option to use that program whenever they need it, they’ll become versed in how it can support their needs.

Once that learner is competent in using that technology, it will become easier for them to effectively explain to other people—like a college professor or a potential employer—how it supports them and why it is necessary.

How can assistive technology like Co:Writer support students with learning disabilities?

3. Identify roles and responsibilities

Before diving into explicit instruction, it’s important to define IEP team members’ individual roles and responsibilities in building learners’ self-advocacy skills. When determining this, it’s helpful to delegate the explicit instruction component to the special education teacher, speech-language pathologist, counselor, or occupational therapist who can provide explicit instruction, and everyone else involved can help with generalization, which means generalizing the skill outside of an environment of controlled instruction and across other people (e.g. the lunchroom, different classrooms, etc). Doing this will help to ensure follow-through.

Teacher working one on one with student

4. Delivering explicit instruction 

Once you’ve determined who will be responsible for teaching self-advocacy, set up a time to talk with the student one-on-one.

Guided Understanding:

Start by explaining what self-advocacy means in the context of a disability. Here’s an example of the kind of language I would use with a student to explain self-advocacy:

Do you know what the word advocacy means? It means asking for something that we need.

You have a list of accommodations right in the back of your binder. So let’s go ahead and turn to that and look at those accommodations. You have a right to your accommodations, meaning that the law says you can have them. But sometimes we have to ask for them.

Asking for help can be very difficult, especially when it’s something hard for you. I’m going to give you an example. I have a very difficult time playing a musical instrument. And this is a really difficult area for me. If this was something I had to do every day in school, I would have been terribly anxious every single day.

But what helps me is that I can practice that in a way and in a place where I’m more comfortable and with people that are going to help them be supportive of me and they’re not going to judge me. And we can practice together and I can get better.

  • Identify needs: The next step is to help the student identify the areas in which they need support. This is really where that SEL comes in handy in terms of knowing strengths and weaknesses.
  • Identify supports: Talk about accommodations that support them, and how students are entitled to those accommodations, as I did above. And do this in the context of their long-term goals: if a student is planning to go to college, eventually imparting the understanding that asking for these accommodations, extra time, access to assistive technology, a separate space in which to take an exam, are all accommodations that they’ll need to continue to advocate for beyond a K-12 environment.
  • Practice with rehearsal and feedback:
    Start with role-playing: have the learner ask for help, or for their accommodations, with people and environments that are very comfortable to them—you, a parent, a counselor.Reinforce their efforts with praise! Then provide suggestions. Follow suggestions with another round of praise.
  • Support for generalization:
    From there, expand to familiar environments that may be more challenging—small groups, etc. After they’ve worked on that for a while, generalize to larger classes or novel environments and people.
Young people and education. Group of students in class at school during lesson. Girl raising hand and asking question to professor

Doing this is what will build the kind of confidence that will lend to communicating with college professors and/or potential employers, when the time comes.

Teaching self-advocacy is a process that, ideally, should stay with students with learning disabilities throughout their schooling in order to gain competency with self-advocacy. A student competent in self-advocacy can be a strong advocate for themselves, give and receive feedback, and be flexible in applying strategies to match the situation. And a competent self-advocate will go far with the skills they need to be their own champion.

Remember Ptahra, the lawyer with dyslexia? She took that a step further and now spends her days using her strong advocacy skills to help advocate for other people with disabilities. Effective self-advocacy played a crucial role in getting her here, and implementing the steps above can create a similar path to success for your students by building strong self-advocacy skills that will last a lifetime.

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