On my IEP throughout high school, one of the top goals was for me to learn to self-advocate. When I was younger, I viewed this goal as meaning that if I had a problem, it would mean that no one would be available to help me and I would be stuck with dealing with everything by myself. That was not the case, as I had so many people to help support me. I've learned a lot about self-advocacy, and I hope that I will be able to help others learn as well.
What is self-advocacy?
Self-advocacy is learning how to speak up for yourself, as well as learning, building a support network, problem solving, and knowing when to reach out for help. It's an extremely important skill to have, as there may not always be someone with you when a situation comes up. This skill has greatly benefitted me outside of school, in college, and beyond.
Learning to speak up for yourself
I do not like causing conflict or hurting people's feelings, so it was hard for me at first to point out that a situation was unfair or that my accommodations were not being followed. In one of my classes, the daily warm-up assignment was never enlarged, so instead of arguing with the teacher every day, I would walk into class and read a book on my eReader until the rest of the class finished with the assignment.
No one can hear you unless you speak up, so make sure to let the teacher know if assignments are presented in a format that is not accessible for you. Also make suggestions on how to make it accessible- enlarging exponents, using different colored pens and papers, digital formats, or anything else you can think of.
In college, I met another student with low vision that didn't know anything about the services they received in school. They told me that their parents and teachers handled everything, and they couldn't tell me what accommodations they received, just that they needed them.
Familiarize yourself with what accommodations you receive. What font size can you read? What color paper works best? What assistive technology do you use? What apps do you use, and on what platform? Do you receive extra time? Are tests in a one-on-one environment? Learning how to explain your accommodations simply and clearly is important. This information will be very helpful when it comes time to create a Disability Services file in college.
Building a support network
With my IEP, I had three case managers in high school over the course of four years (I attended two high schools). They were specifically picked for me because they were great with helping students learn to self-advocate- they wouldn't sit there and yell at my teachers over trivial things or constantly hover over me. Instead, they would step in when there was a problem I needed help with. My guidance counselors were also incredible resources, as they would listen and move me out of classes when necessary, as well as be some of my greatest advocates in IEP meetings. In addition, each of my high schools also had an assistant principal who would handle the cases for students with IEPs, and the principal was helpful as well. The central office of my school districts listened to my concerns when situations were too much to handle.
I also had family and friends to help me through smaller situations. My parents, especially my mom, would attend every IEP meeting and help make sure that I was thriving in the educational environment. My parents have always been very encouraging of my goals as well. In the classroom, I also had friends that would help me advocate for myself so I didn't feel as nervous. In a class where the teacher regularly did not enlarge my work, one of my best friends was always right behind me whenever I went to ask the teacher for my assignments, so when the teacher started telling me that I didn't need large print, I would feel more confident in reminding them that I do and I would be less likely to back away.
Learning to solve minor problems on your own can be extremely beneficial. I learned how to scan in and enlarge assignments, make documents accessible, and type my own notes when there were no prewritten notes available. This meant that I was still able to participate in class even if my IEP wasn't completely followed, and it meant my grades were higher because I missed less assignments.
Knowing when to reach out for help
In one of my math classes, I had a teacher who did not believe I needed large print, as they assumed my glasses corrected my vision to 100% and it was a waste of their time to enlarge things, despite the fact I had an IEP. I thought I could handle the situation myself, and didn't tell anyone how badly I was struggling in the class. I didn't use any assistive technology regularly at that time, so it should be no surprise that I failed the class.
As important as it is to try and handle situations yourself, you have a support network for a reason. It's important to let someone else step in for situations that involve the law being broken, threats, or when you've tried everything you can think of. This isn't failure to self-advocate though, as an important aspect is remembering when to get help.
Self-advocacy is one of the skills that I am the most grateful for. Because of this, I have been able to go on to attend college, confident in myself and my abilities, but still knowing where I need extra help. I will always be grateful for the people and experiences that helped me develop this skill.