autonomous female advocating for her rights with scales of justice behind her.

Learning to self-advocate

The ultimate guide to learning to self-advocate for students with disabilities, written from the perspective of a student with low vision whose IEP goals included self-advocacy.

When I started to prepare for college transition shortly before starting high school, a large chunk of my IEP goals revolved around learning to self-advocate and developing other skills that related to self-advocacy. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what “learning to self-advocate” would look like for me, and thought that it was unfair that I had to learn about it- since all of the other students in my class had assignments and tests handed to them in a format they could read by default, why couldn’t I also get materials in accessible formats without having to ask for them? Isn’t that why I have an IEP anyway? Or a case manager, teacher of the visually impaired, or parents? Whenever someone asked me about self-advocacy, I felt like they were really saying “no one can help you” and that maybe they wanted me to practice self-isolation instead. I felt very comfortable with advocacy in other contexts,  but the idea of talking about my disability was not particularly exciting.

Thankfully, this attitude changed as I realized it was unfair and unrealistic to expect perfection. My IEP did a great job at explaining how my disability impacted my classroom experience, but it could very easily be ignored or forgotten, and I didn’t have a case manager, teacher of the visually impaired, or parents in the classroom with me all the time. Also, once I graduated high school, I wouldn’t be taking any of these things to college with me, but my disability would still be there, whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not. I had to take the opportunity to learn how to talk about my disability and how it affects me, as well as learn strategies for how to make things accessible.

I would be learning to self-advocate.

What does it mean to self-advocate?

Self-advocacy is defined as “the action of representing oneself or one’s views or interests.” In the context of disability and IEP goals, another definition that is frequently used is “the process by which a person controls their own life.”

When my formal self-advocacy goals were first documented in my IEP, I was experiencing a decline in my usable vision as well as then-unexplained neurological symptoms (which would be diagnosed after I graduated). One of the reasons that self-advocacy was so heavily emphasized for me is because no one could look at me or the name of my condition and guess what I could or couldn’t see, and it would be detrimental to have people make assumptions about what I was capable of. If I couldn’t see something or if an environmental trigger was affecting me, I was going to have to speak up about it, or deal with the consequences on my own- which could be a low assignment/test grade, missing instructional time, or missing out on other opportunities.

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Learning to ask for help

Using telepathy (bad idea)

I remember one time when I had trouble reading an assignment in class, and I raised my hand to tell my teacher I couldn’t see it. I figured they would print off a larger print copy, read some of the lines that were more difficult for me to see, or draw some of the other symbols larger.

Instead, the teacher responded by saying “I don’t know what you want from me. Figure it out.”

I was discouraged by this response and ended up not completing the assignment, choosing to read a book on my eReader instead. This meant I got a zero on the assignment and a low grade on the quiz and test that followed. My case manager, teacher of the visually impaired, and especially my parents were not amused.

Using suggestions for things that can help (good idea)

In the first example, I had a few ideas for how to make my assignment easier to read, and assumed that my teacher would come up with the same suggestions and help me without saying anything. I didn’t want to be the one to make the suggestions because I was worried that it would seem like I was telling the teacher what to do or that it could cause conflict. Instead, I had to deal with the consequences of missed instructional time, and I still remember this experience many years later. My teacher was actually prompting me to tell them what to do and wanted me to share how they could help me.

One of the strategies I tell students who are learning to self-advocate is to give suggestions for ways to make something accessible or easier to do. Some examples of this include:

Another strategy I use is to ask “if you had a magic wand, how would you fix this?” While it’s worth noting that this isn’t a guarantee that the problem will be solved, brainstorming solutions, even in a silly way, is a great way to practice approaching different situations. In the examples I gave above, some examples of “magic spells” I’ve heard people come up with include:

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Developing an understanding of disability/disability accommodations

The importance of understanding how my disability affects me and the details of my disability accommodations became apparent when I transferred to a new high school in a different school district. While a lot of teachers and other students were generally aware that I had trouble seeing or that I received accommodations for my disability at my first high school since I had lived in the area for many years, I was in a completely new environment at my second high school and had to explain a lot about how my disability affected me as well as the different types of disability accommodations I received- this included the formal accommodations like the ones written in my IEP as well as the “informal” accommodations for things like not flickering the lightswitch in the classroom. Practicing these skills helped me tremendously when I started college two years later, as I would have to repeat this process with Disability Services staff, professors, and internship managers.

I have an entire in-depth blog post about learning to explain disability accommodations broken down into eight key categories, including:

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Building problem-solving skills

As I got older and started taking more advanced classes, my teachers expected students to be more independent in the classroom and to try solving problems on their own before asking for help. In the context of self-advocacy, I like to describe the act of developing problem-solving skills as creating a toolbox of strategies that I can do on my own to make something easier to read or otherwise access. Some examples of problem-solving skills to develop include:

If none of the things I tried solve the problem, I feel more comfortable asking for help and sharing what I have tried so far, as well as suggestions for how to make it better. The only time where I will go straight to asking for help and not trying something on my own is in an exam or standardized test, as these are often timed or have very strict rules on modifying the test in any way.

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Creating an network of resources and support

Self-advocacy is not self-isolation, and another item to have in the “toolbox” of problem-solving skills is a network of people and things that can help if a situation is too difficult to be handled individually. At each school I have attended, I keep an informal list of people and resources both inside and outside of my school that I can turn to if I have a problem. This can include:

Having to ask for help outside of the classroom is not a failure at self-advocacy. After all, a big part of self-advocacy is knowing when to ask for help, and these people can often provide different ways of assistance than a classroom teacher can.

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Applying self-advocacy skills outside of the classroom

I am grateful for the opportunities to develop self-advocacy skills in the classroom environment, as this was great practice for navigating “real-world” situations such as independent living and the workplace. After all, the need to self-advocate is not exclusive to academics, and an important part of learning to self-advocate means being able to do it in a variety of contexts. Examples of ways I am continuously practicing self-advocacy skills include:

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Other tips for learning to self-advocate

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated July 2023; original post published March 2017.

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