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By Léna Bergeron & Dr. Nadia Rousseau

What is Self-Advocacy?

Generally speaking, promoting self-advocacy refers to supporting students to develop self-awareness and self-esteem; to feel effective and in control of their lives; to promote their rights and advocate on their own behalf; to set goals and pursue them; to make choices and decisions; to solve problems; and to engage in self-reflection and inner dialogue (Wehmeyer & Agran, 2007, Wehmeyer, Agran & Hughes, 1998).

Self-Advocacy and Learning Disabilities

Students with learning disabilities (LDs) who are supported to develop these 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 (Wehmeyer, Agran & Hughes, 1998)!

How Can Educators Support Student Self-Advocacy?

Supporting the development of self-advocacy necessarily involves the transition from passivity and dependence to activity and autonomy. Given this, how can educators support their students with LDs to develop self-advocacy skills?

One case study set out to answer this question (Bergeron, 2012). The results point to some very interesting areas for action and four key observations, illustrated in the figure below.

Figure demonstrating an environment that acknowledges interdependence.Figure 1: Supporting the Development of Self-Advocacy

Please click here to access a PDF version of Figure 1.

1. Help students to feel competent and safe

Two conditions essential for self-advocacy are a sense of being capable of success and a sense of security. This is illustrated in Figure 1 by the interaction between the perceptions and beliefs that young people have around their abilities that either support or thwart the development of self-advocacy skills.
The study results reveal that, because students with LDs find themselves struggling or in need of help more often, their feelings of competence and emotional security are more likely to be compromised. They are unlikely to feel any sense of control over their learning when they cannot experience success because of their disabilities. Rather, they will feel a lack of power or control over the task. Such students are less likely to become invested in a task, especially with any sense of self-advocacy.
Thus, supporting the development of self-advocacy requires learning situations in which these students can experience success. This calls for differentiated instruction to ensure that students can complete their tasks and projects.
The results of this study show that if students are afraid of their peers’ reactions when they ask for help or are afraid to make mistakes in front of educators, they are unlikely to make themselves vulnerable or to take the kinds of risks and initiative that self-advocacy requires. Thus, in order to build the positive self-image that risk-taking requires, educators can encourage students to see their strengths by offering positive reinforcement and encouragement, and by acknowledging their successes, no matter how small.
Additionally, it is essential to foster an emotionally safe and trusting learning environment, and to build mutual trust between the students and educators.

2. Create a context that is conducive and supportive

Offer learning situations that provide students with opportunities to develop self-advocacy and in which they feel supported.

Optimal conditions for the development of self-advocacy can be found in Figure 1 in the interaction between opportunities and support. Thus, supporting the development of self-advocacy requires the creation of learning situations that give students an active, central role.

For example, educators can ensure that their students have opportunities to make decisions, make choices, and act autonomously with the resources they use during learning. Educators can also create situations where the students work with their peers, have opportunities to comment on the tasks and strategies of other students, and have opportunities to ask others to look at their tasks and strategies and provide them with feedback.

In this context, the role of the educator is one of support and guidance. The educator asks questions in order to have the students verbalize what they are doing and when necessary, they model and provides an example. The educator supports the students to take responsibility for their learning and teaches them to ask for help.

The results of this study also demonstrate the importance of creating learning situations that create the need and the desire to learn. Educators should try to offer students opportunities to engage in situations that are authentic and meaningful, that challenge them, and that are based on needs either expressed by the students or observed by the educator. In summary, students must have opportunities to become actively engaged and interested in their learning and educators must support them in the acts of responsibility taking that this process involves.

3. Self-advocacy as a collective and societal undertaking

Self-advocacy is enhanced when approached from a collective, societal perspective rather than from an individualistic perspective. This is illustrated by the entire frame around Figure 1, representing an environment that acknowledges interdependence. Just as rights and freedoms come with duties and obligations, autonomy and the freedom it confers must necessarily be accompanied by responsibility.
A common mistake that people make is to think that being a self-advocate means doing things by oneself, on one’s own, without any help. Being a self-advocate does not mean acting without assistance or influence. This influence is not excessive control by another person; rather, it is a consideration of one’s peers and a collective sense of responsibility.
The results of this research show that, when educators instill a sense of responsibility for the group, create opportunities for co-operation, and teach students to enter into relationships with others, a collective sense of responsibility conducive to self-advocacy can be created.

4. Coherence in our actions

Coherence in the actions of educators amplifies the power of their work in support of self-determination. Students are less likely to take the risk of showing initiative or acting autonomously in environments in which support for these behaviours is not a sure thing. This is illustrated in the figure above by the quest for coherence that facilitates co-operation, i.e., the opportunities and support that the students are offered to behave in a self-determined manner.
This study demonstrates the strength that comes from a shared, articulated pedagogical understanding of self-advocacy. In daily practice, this can translate into a quest for continuity in work with students with LDs (whether in the classroom or in speech therapy small group work),  the creation of opportunities for educators to talk and share, and the active and engaged presence of the speech therapist in the classroom.
Educators who want to support their students in developing self-advocacy would do well to build relationships with the other adults who are working with their students and to encourage them to work with this goal in mind, either by making them aware of it or by actually helping them to discover how to incorporate it into their work.


In conclusion, the first step in supporting the development of self-advocacy is awareness that every action has the potential to contribute to self-advocacy. We must first become aware of what we are already doing to support self-advocacy. Then, building on our strengths as educators, we can expand our repertoire of effective actions.

For young people with LDs, self-advocacy is a long-term goal - one that should drive the choices that we make as educators, as speech therapists, as psychologists, and all other professionals in the field. Working in this way, we can offer young people the means to be proactive, take charge of their lives, persevere in the face of obstacles, and learn from their mistakes.

In short, we can support them to prepare for their lives as adults. And isn't this one of the fundamental roles of school?

Related Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the video Building self-advocates: a key to student success.

Click here to access the answer to the question What does a student need to know about learning disabilities in order to be a self-advocate?.

Click here to access the video Our Self-Advocacy Pamphlet Journey.

Click here to access the podcast The Journey to Becoming a Self-Advocate: Three Students’ Perspectives.

Click here to access the tip sheet Fostering Self-Advocacy.

Click here to access the article Strategies to Teach Self-Advocacy Skills.

Additional Resources on Self-Advocacy

The Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (LDAO) offers online courses and workshops designed to develop self-awareness and self-advocacy skills through “Job-Fit”. Click here to access more information on Job Fit and self-awareness workshops.


Bergeron, L. (2013). L’autodétermination : un tremplin pour soutenir le goût de l’école. In: S. Ouellet (Ed.), Une histoire de passion – Soutenir le goût de l’école. Quebec City, Quebec: Presses de l'Université du Québec, Collection Éducation/Intervention.

Bergeron, L., Bergeron, G. et Rousseau, N. (2011). Favoriser le bien-être des élèves ayant des troubles ou des difficultés d’apprentissage par le développement de l’autodétermination : élément central de la pédagogie de la sollicitude. In: D. Curchod, L. Lafortune, P.-A. Doudin and N. Lafranchise (Ed.), La santé psychosociale des élèves (p. 265-288). Quebec City: Presses de l'Univer¬sité du Québec, Collection Éducation/Recherche.

Wehmeyer, M.L. (2003). Theory in self-determination: foundations for educational practice. Springfield, IL: C.C. Thomas.

Wehmeyer, M.L. (2005). Self-determination and individuals with severe disabilities: Re-examining meanings and misinterpretations. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities 30, 113-120.

Wehmeyer, M.L., Agran, M., & Hughes, C. (1998). Teaching self-determination to students with disabilities. Basic skills for successful transition. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Wehmeyer, M.L. and Field, S.L. (2007). Self-determination : instructional and assessment strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Wehmeyer, M.L., et Lachapelle, Y. (2006). Autodétermination, proposition d'un modèle conceptuel fonctionnel. Dans Gascon, H., Boisvert, D., Haelewyck, M-C., Poulin,
J-R. et Detraux, J-J. (Éd.), Déficience intellectuelle, savoirs et perspectives d'action (p. 69-76). Québec, QC: Presses interuniversitaires.

horizontal line tealNadia Rousseau has a master’s degree in Special Education and a Ph.D. in Psychopedagogy from the University of Alberta. She teaches at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and is the Normand-Maurice Research Chair. She leads the QISAQ, a group of researchers and undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate students who are interested in the qualification and inclusion of young adults in Quebec. Winner of an award for excellence in research in 2009, Professor Rousseau’s areas of interest are the school experience and self-knowledge of young people with learning disabilities, inclusive pedagogy, and factors conducive to an increase in the number of young people with learning difficulties who are successful in earning a certificate, diploma or degree.

Léna Bergeron has a master’s degree in Education from Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, where she is currently working on a doctoral degree in Education. She is a Research Assistant to the Normand-Maurice Research Chair and a student member of LISIS, an international laboratory on inclusiveness in education systems. Her areas of interest are support for the development of self-determination in students with special needs and education planning for a broad range of students.