Introduction to Self-Advocacy

student ready for a transitionSelf-advocacy is defined as the ability to speak on one’s behalf and represent personal needs and interests[1]. It involves understanding one’s learning strengths and developing the ability to communicate learning needs and required accommodations[2].

While in school, students with LDs often rely on parents and teachers to make choices for them and to advocate on their behalf[3]. They may not be aware of their strengths because previous experiences may have been too focused on their learning weaknesses[4]. As well, LDs are a ‘hidden disability’ and people who are unaware of the challenges faced by individuals with LDs may perceive these students as unsuited for postsecondary education or limited in employment choices[5].

Self-advocacy skills are regarded as a means of helping adolescents adjust to making decisions on their own and speaking out about their academic needs[6]. However, these skills are rarely acquired by the student independently[7].

The importance of building self-advocacy in students with LDs

“The ability to self-advocate is important for students to learn in order to be successful at all stages of their lives. Students live with their learning challenges on a daily basis and need the ability to negotiate obstacles, build on their strengths, and clearly articulate their needs.”

- Shared Solutions[8]

Self-advocacy is especially important for students with LDs as it is necessary to achieve maturity, confidence, and a sense of identity[9]. Students with LDs who are supported to develop self-advocacy skills are more likely to be proactive, take charge of their life at school, persevere in the face of obstacles, and learn from their mistakes. This approach also has the potential to increase their interest in school and to view their education as an integral part of who they are.

All too often, students with special education needs have not developed these skills and have not been given sufficient opportunity to feel effective and in control of their learning. Indeed, focusing on the development of self-advocacy in students with LDs requires that we resist our natural tendency to take over for them when we feel they need more support. When decisions are made on behalf of students with LDs, it is unlikely that they will feel that they have a stake in their own learning. And it is unlikely that they will then have the confidence to take risks or be proactive.

In other words, it is highly unlikely that a student who stays afloat by means of a lifejacket will be able to swim when that lifejacket is suddenly removed! [10]  After the student moves beyond secondary school, however, expectations change, and parents and teachers are no longer able to make decisions on behalf of these students.

Watch the following video “Building self-advocates: A key to student success”, created with the Greater Essex County District School Board, which discusses the importance and the impact of helping all students, but especially those with LDs, become strong self-advocates. The video includes interviews with classroom teachers at elementary and secondary levels, a superintendent of special education, and a principal, who discuss a variety of strategies and tools so that students can learn what works best for them and have the confidence to ask for help, when they need it. Additionally, a number of students, of various ages, share their perspectives on strategies for self-advocacy and what has worked for them in the past:

Click here to view the transcript of this video.

[1] Kotzer and Margalit, 2007

[2] Merchant & Gajar, 1997

[3] Mishna et al., 2011; Zhang, 2001

[4] Vogel & Adelman, 1993

[5] Egly, 1987

[6] Field, Sarver, & Shaw, 2003; Phillips, 2001

[7] Michaels, 1994

[8] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2007

[9] Phillips, 2001

[10] Wehmeyer, Agran & Hughes, 1998