2) Teaching Self-Advocacy Skills

Self-advocacy does not mean “doing it all yourself” without the help of others.

Characteristics of Self-Advocacy

Students with disabilities require self-advocacy characteristics and skills for a successful transition from high school to post-secondary education. The process of developing self-advocacy skills should begin while the students still attend high school. It is important for students with exceptionalities to be aware of their rights and how to present themselves responsibly. Furthermore, students with disabilities are not exempt from such policies however they will need to learn how to assertively advocate for their needs without being aggressive.

Developing Self-Understanding will help student’s plans goals for themselves. Students with exceptionalities should reflect on their situations which will thereby develop Self-awareness.   Students who gain and develop a greater understanding of their own needs gain confidence to recognize their abilities. This will allow students to set realistic goals for themselves and will have a better chance of enjoying their education experience despite having impairment. It is important to voice your opinion, address concerns as well as developing learning strategies for setting goals, time management and problem solving. In order to self-advocate, students need to RECOGNIZE, ACCEPT and UNDERSTAND.

“It is about independent groups of people with
exceptionalities working together for justice by helping each
other take charge of our lives and fight discrimination. It teaches us how to
make decisions and choices that affect our lives so we can be more independent.
It also teaches us about our rights, but along with learning about our rights
we learn responsibilities. The way we learn about advocating for ourselves is
by supporting each other and helping each other gain confidence in ourselves so
we can speak for what we believe in.”

Characteristics include:

  • Awareness of personal preferences, interests, strengths, and limitations.
  • Ability to differentiate between wants and needs.
  • Ability to make choices based on preferences, interests, wants, and needs.
  • Ability to consider multiple options and to anticipate consequences for decisions.
  • Ability to initiate and take action when needed.
  • Ability to evaluate decisions based on the outcomes of previous decisions and to revise future decisions accordingly.
  • Ability to set and work toward goals.
  • Problem-solving skills.
  • A striving for independence while recognizing interdependence with others.
  • Ability to self-regulate behavior.
  • Self-evaluation skills
  • Independent performance and adjustment skills.
  • Persistence.
  • Ability to use communication skills such as negotiation, compromise, and persuasion to reach goals.
  • Ability to assume responsibility for actions and decisions.
  • Self-confidence.
  • Pride.
  • Creativity (such as creating other accommodations that help support the need of the students)

Parental and Guidance Support

Many people are involved in assisting students with disabilities in their transition to post-secondary education. Guidance counselors, teachers, parents, community advocates and students with disabilities have important roles to play in the process. These individuals provide students with assistance in finding the right college or university and establishing support within the postsecondary environment.

 Connecting with disability service providers is also important to the process. These individuals make a great difference in the transition experiences of students with disabilities.  It is important to set up preliminary visits to meet the staff at the disability office and perhaps other students with disabilities. Meeting with disability service provider may reduce some of the stress that students with disabilities feel. Talking with a service provider from the disability centre/office allows an opportunity to share their concerns to discuss how the concerns will be handled. Students with disabilities will be asked to provide medical, learning, or psychological reports that will aid the service provider in making accommodations. This will allow the service provider to establish proper accommodations for the student for them to be successful.  Students must work together with the service provider to ensure their concerns are being addressed.  It’s all about compromise!

For students with disabilities/exceptionalities, service providers will encourage that to have a successful education experience, having a reduced course load is an option. Many students with disabilities need additional time to complete course readings, assignments and tests/exams. Taking a reduced course load, does not reflect the academic ability or potential of the student with a disability. It allows flexibility and the difference between success and failure.

Partnering with parents

Families can help to:

  • ž Encourage independence and choice making beginning at an early age
  • ž  Identify a student’s interest and strengths
  • ž  Make informed decisions regarding services and programs
  • ž  Provide documentation for assessments
  • ž  Collaborate in creative problem solving                                                                                                          
  • ž  Support decisions students make for their future
  • ž  Give confidence and raise self-esteem

Changing Roles

Through elementary, middle and high school, parents (or other family members who raised you) had a leading role in planning and directing your education. While parents are still important to your success, their day-to-day role changes as a student enters college or university.

In High School, your teachers and parents could contact each other at any time for an update on how you were doing.  The communication system is different.  In college/university, teachers cannot discuss your progress or needs with family members unless you have specifically given permission for them to be included in a meeting or discussion.

Self-advocacy Strategies: How to problem solve?

Self-advocacy is not about having all answers.  An effective self-advocate is one who asks the rights questions.

You can build self-advocacy strategies around asking “what, who, when, where and how.”

1. What does the student need to know or to receive from others to accomplish his/her goal?

This could be anything from information about course requirements, to a request for special classroom aids, to better understanding your sensory needs. Make sure you are able to name and describe a student’s “asks” clearly.  Be clear in your own mind about what a good solution would be.

2. Who is most likely to have what a student needs, and to have the power, knowledge or ability to provide it for the student?

Take time to find out who is in charge or is most likely to be knowledgeable and helpful. If a student is not sure, ensure the student asks someone they trust to direct them, or introduce them to, the right person.  In most cases, try the simplest and most direct solution first. For example, if a student does not know how to begin an assignment or feels they are not being accommodated inappropriate according to their needs, it may be very useful to ask members of a study group or contact the teacher, but less useful to complain of the head of the department or someone above the teacher.

3.) When is it most effective and appropriate to raise an issue?

For example, when is it correct to interrupt someone, and when is it better to wait? When is it acceptable to draw attention to your feelings and opinions, and when is it considered impolite or disruptive?

Try to approach people when they are able to give you their full attention, rather than when they are muti-tasking or interacting with someone else. If a student is uncertain about the situation, tell them what you want and ask whether they have time to deal with it now or would prefer to do so later. Most people appreciate if you give them a choice.

4. Where is this type of question or need typically addressed? For example, what issues should be raised in class or in the teacher’s office after class? Should a subject be discussed in private, or should it be discussed in public?

When you are self-advocating, it usually best to choose a place where the other person will feel comfortable. For example, your teacher/professor might not want to have a long talk while standing in a busy hallway, but he or she might offer you a generous amount of time if you visit their office.

5.How do students typically express themselves in different informal and formal situations? How much detail and background about yourself should you give when you interact with others?

Whether (or how much) to tell other’s about one’s exceptionality is a big question for many self-advocates, and there is no single right answer.  It is up to the student who has the exceptionality.

When advocating: Share Behaviours

Sit up straight

Have a pleasant tone of voice

Activate your thinking

  • Tell yourself to pay attention
  • Tell yourself to participate
  • Tell yourself to compare ideas


  • Don’t look uptight
  • Tell yourself to stay calm

Engage in eye communication

Case Study: Presenting Self-advocacy


Rosanna is a student who currently attends University of Toronto specializing in Life Science and Education. She has been attending University of Toronto for seven years. Rosanna has a learning disability/exceptionality and has decided to take a reduce course load to maintain her health and do well in her studies. Just when Rosanna was in High School, she was diagnosed with rare form type of seizures. She has been living with Epilepsy now for nine years of her life. She is very passionate about science and about becoming a teacher. In High School and currently in post-secondary, she continually learns how to advocate for herself and get the help and support from family/Counsellors, Directors and Professors. Overall, her time thus far at University of Toronto has been enjoyable, despite the few setbacks and non-sup portative Professors’ she has encountered.

Medical Condition

Rosanna has partial onset seizures which are characterized by right arm numbness or shaking that may spread to involve her right leg as well. Unfortunately, Rosanna’s permanent disability affects her learning in multiple ways with respect to memory, concentration and consolidation, as well as, retrieval of information.  A high dosage of anti-epileptic medication that Rosanna is required to take also tends to slow thought and speed of processing.

Supports and Accommodations

Based on the review of Rosanna’s medical/psychological documentation, Counselling & Disabilities Services at University of Toronto are recommending the following academic accommodations.

Classroom Accommodations

  • Rosanna may be absent from class due to medical appointments and/or illness or flare up of her condition
  • Permission for Rosanna to audiotape lectures
  • Rosanna may need to change date on tests/exams due to medical appointments
  • Access to Note Taking Services

Exam Accommodations

  • Extended time on tests/assignments
  • Access to separate testing room (Alternate Exam Centre)
  • Dimmed lighting in testing room
  • Rosanna requires access to memory aid during a test/exam
  • Space of Exam writing.  Rosanna will require at least two days between exams and may request to reschedule if she encounters an exam conflict.
  • Flexible deadlines
  • Rosanna may require take home tests/assignments when medical condition flares up

In her first semester of Rosanna’s last year at University, she is taking a Drama Communication course. The Professor has denied several accommodations according to the documentation provided by her Doctor. Meanwhile, all other Professor’s that Rosanna currently has and has had in the past have accommodated her according to her disability. This certain Professor has mentioned to Rosanna’s Counsellor at Counselling & Disability Services that “she has no time to accommodate a student that has a disability in her class.” This professor has also breached Rosanna’s confidentiality by singling her out in front of the class.  Rosanna’s classmates are now aware of her exceptionality.

Let’s think outside the box….

Imagine if you were Rosanna.

(1)   What required steps would you’ve have taken in order to self-advocate for yourself?

(2)   Also, if you were Rosanna’s teacher/Professor, what accommodations would you provide her base on the nature of her exceptionality?


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