It is never too early to start learning how to advocate for yourself!
Self-advocacy is a key step in becoming an adult. It means looking out for yourself, telling people what you need, and knowing how to take responsibility. No one is born knowing these skills. Everyone has to learn them.
What is self-advocacy?
Self-advocacy means taking the responsibility for telling people what you want and need in a straightforward way. It is knowing how to:
- speak up for yourself
- describe your strengths, disability, needs, and wishes take responsibility for yourself
- find out about your rights
- obtain help or know who to ask if you have a question
Where Can I Practice Self-Advocacy?
A great place to practice self-advocacy is in your Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. With the support of your team members, you can learn ways to:
- explain your disability to others
- set goals for yourself
- build teamwork skills
- share with teachers what works and does not work for you
- ask for accommodation
- accept help from others
- lead all or part of the IEP meeting
But I Don’t Like Going to These Meetings!
Understandable. But did you know there are still many ways you can be involved and learn self-advocacy skills? Which of these ideas might work for you?
- Come for just a few minutes, instead of attending the whole meeting.
- Write down your ideas, questions, and concerns before the meeting.
- Practice or role-play ahead of time what you want to say in the meeting.
- Introduce yourself .
- Tell team members about your interests, strengths, and desires for the future.
- Explain to the team what it is like to have your disability.
- Help your special education teacher write the agenda.
- Help the team develop IEP goal areas.
- Ask for explanations if you do not understand something.
- At the end of the meeting, review what the team decided.
- If you choose not to attend the meeting, share your input with your parent(s) or special education teacher before the meeting and review the meeting’s events afterward.
Most people are more comfortable at meetings if they have had some time to think about what they want to say. Before your IEP meeting, you could think about these questions:
- What do I want to learn or work on this year?
- What are my special concerns for the school year?
- How do I learn the best?
- What do I need to be successful?
- What would make learning easier for me?
- What positive information about myself can I share at the meeting?
What does the law say about my attending IEP meetings?
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that you must automatically be invited to all of your IEP meetings once you are 16. (You don’t have to go, but it’s a good idea. After all, no one knows you better than you.) In Minnesota transition must begin during the ninth grade, so you should be invited then and whenever the team is talking about transition services. You may want to discuss attending your IEP meeting with your parents. Transition is about planning for your future. You will look at your skills in three areas:
- postsecondary education and training
- independent living, if appropriate (includes recreation and leisure as well as community participation)
All this planning and self-advocacy will serve you well. When you turn 18, you will be considered an adult—and will make lots of decisions on your own unless you have a legal guardian. You will be signing your own IEP. This is why it is a great idea to practice self-advocacy as much as possible before turning 18.
Learning good self-advocacy skills is cool. It will help you while you are in school—and when you become an adult. Knowing and exercising your rights are important steps in becoming a strong self-advocate.
Articles & Resources
Some of the resources below are in PDF format. You need Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download online for free.
Self-Advocacy: Strategies for All Ages. Students who know how to self-advocate have an important skill that supports lifelong success. Tips to help your child acquire the skills that will help them understand their needs and communicate those needs to others.
Chart Your Own Future. This is a pdf document that will help you answer these questions: What will you be doing after high school? Where will you be working, going to school, or living? What kind of life do you want?
How Can My Child Be Involved in the IEP Process? Children need as much practice in self advocacy as possible before they turn 18, when parental rights transfer to the special education student. Self advocacy skills prepare students for the world and their future beyond high school.
Self-Advocacy: A Valuable Skill for Your Teenager. Self-advocacy is understanding your strengths and needs, identifying your personal goals, knowing your legal rights and responsibilities, and communicating these to others.
Self-Advocacy Guides. The Arizona Center for Disability Law offers several self-advocacy guides covering different disability-related legal issues free of charge. The guides cover topics such as employment, discrimination, assistive technology, special education, and more.
Charting the LifeCourse Toolkit. This toolkit is designed to help caregivers understand the meaning of respite, learn from real life examples, and create a respite plan that enhances the lives of all family members. It’s meant for family caregivers of a child or adult with a disability, chronic condition, or functional limitation (or professionals who work with family caregivers).
Deafverse. An interactive game that supports deaf youth with the development of their self-advocacy skills as they navigate real-life scenarios based on everyday experiences of deaf people. As deaf youth prepare for life after high school, feelings of anticipation and uncertainty are to be expected. Deafverse is based on adventure games, which offer a safe environment to apply critical thinking skills while engaging in problem-based learning by testing a variety of responses to challenges and conflicts. Deafverse can be played on computers or mobile devices, and at no cost to players. This game can be used at home, school, transition programs, or vocational rehabilitation settings. Share Deafverse today with the deaf young people you know, with the game’s motto in mind: “Choose Your Future”.
Fact Sheets, Toolkits, and Training Materials on Self-Advocacy
Oh, where to start, and what to list? There’s an amazing amount of materials out there designed to help schools and families prepare young people with disabilities to advocate for themselves. In fact, many more than we will list here. We know you haven’t got all day, so start with these resources and see how they fit your learning and training needs.
Whose Future Is It Anyway? (2nd edition)
Subtitled “A Student-Directed Transition Planning Process,” Whose Future Is It Anyway? helps prepare students for their IEP meetings and gain self-determination skills through six sections that contain 36 lesson sessions. The lesson package comes with a Coach’s Guide that outlines the lessons, how to teach them, the roles of the students and teachers, as well as expected outcomes.
Building Self-Advocacy and Self-Care Management Skills.
Here’s a handy list of suggestions and insights for parents to build their youth’s self-advocacy skills at home, especially with respect to health care and management. There are several videos, too.
Youthhood’s Curriculum Guide.
Youthhood.org’s purpose is to help young adults plan for life after high school. The site also offers information, links, and interactive activities for adults who work directly with youth (including but not limited to teachers, youth workers, community leaders, parents, and other adult family members) to help youth plan for their futures. It can be used as a “stand-alone” curriculum or as a supplement to an established curriculum.
ME! Lessons for Teaching Self-Awareness & Self-Advocacy.
The ME! Lessons were developed to help educators teach students critical transition skills. It’s quite a comprehensive package. There are 23 lessons in all, with each taking about 45-60 minutes to complete (not including extension activities). Lesson 1 focuses specifically on self-advocacy. Other lessons help students learn their rights, improve their communication skills, and learn how to advocate for themselves in high school, on the job, and in a postsecondary education setting. Each lesson plan includes student objectives, materials, lesson opening, procedures, closure, and student evaluation.
My Health, My Choice, My Responsibility.
My Health, My Choice, My Responsibility is an 8-session curriculum-based group training program focusing on advocating for healthy choices on a daily basis. The emphasis is on gaining knowledge to make informed choices and the skills and tools needed to speak up for good health. Topics include being a self-advocate at medical appointments, physical activity, nutrition, being safe and healthy at home, and feelings. Participants learn the material through discussions, exercises, and visual aids. The link above will take you to a subsection, where you’ll need to scroll down a bit to find the curriculum (go just past “Online Videos”).
Personal Preferences Indicator: A Guide for Planning.
For use with individuals with significant developmental disabilities | Available in English and Spanish.
This is a tool to assist in planning with and for a person with a developmental disability. It’s a guide, not a checklist, for accessing information about the person’s preferences across 7 domain areas. The items are used as cues or prompts for discussing with the person or their family/friends the important considerations in developing a plan of support. Domains explored include the individual’s favorites, emotions, socialization, self-determination, physical self, health, and family roles. Also available in Spanish | Los Indicatores de Preferencias Personales: Una Guía para Planear.