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by Keri Huddleston and Mary Pembleton
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 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.
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.
Put plainly, self-advocacy is the ability to recognize a need, identify a solution, and stand up for oneself.
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?’”
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.
“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.
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:
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:
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.
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 principles—engagement, representation, and action & expression—also build self-awareness and agency. When a student is able to:
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.
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.
Once you’ve determined who will be responsible for teaching self-advocacy, set up a time to talk with the student one-on-one.
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.
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.