Self Advocacy

Self Advocacy


In order to best accommodate for your educational barriers, having someone who can effectively and clearly articulate your individual challenges and needs is extremely helpful. In other words, to have a voice advocating for you is very important. However, in many cases, articulating these challenges and needs yourself when you are able to, is even more effective. This is known as self advocacy.

Why IEPs Matter

colorful but faceless, nameless people sitting around a conference room table

This image shows what looks to be different aliens trying to coordinate and work together. This is an exaggerated animation of what can be perceived by a person unfamiliar with the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) process.

For many people, the IEP is the first instance that advocacy becomes an important tool. Your first IEP meeting might feel intimidating, but it should not be as alienating as the picture above. In an IEP meeting, every single participant should be heard and understood. Achieving this connection is crucial in order to have an open, productive, and well rounded discussion. 

IEP meetings are important because they are often the main event in the year in which decisions about either your or, if you are a parent, your learner’s education are made. 

Why self advocacy is needed in IEP meetings:

  • In IEP meetings, the voice of the individual learner may be overlooked, not taken as seriously as it should be, or not taken as seriously as other voices in the meeting. 
  • Too often, several educational experts make decisions about the learner’s future without properly considering his/her feelings or voice. 

In future IEP meetings, learners should aim to productively self advocate in a discussion by watching their teachers, support staff, parents, and/or caregivers appropriately and productively contribute to an IEP discussion.

How to Participate in Your IEP Meeting presents 8 steps to being an active member in your IEP meeting according to students:

  • Step 1: Know your disability/classification
  • Step 2: Identify your support system 
  • Step 3: Know your strengths
  • Step 4: Know your challenges
  • Step 5: Know your accommodations
  • Step 6: Know your short-term goals
  • Step 7: Know your long-term goals
  • Step 8: Know how to accomplish your goals

Pay Attention to How Others Contribute

IEP meetings can be one of earliest and most important decision making events in the life of a learner. 

In IEP meetings with young learners, understanding what is going on can be challenging for them to understand, but as they mature and progress, appreciating that the IEP is about them and nobody else is a necessity. When learners understand this, they should feel empowered and welcome to self advocate. 

All teachers, administrators, and support staff are in the IEP meeting to support the learner. The whole focus of the meeting is aimed towards the learner’s needs and all participants should fully appreciate this. 

What to look for during the meeting:

  • Are IEP team members  focused on your personalized learning? 
  • Are they speaking up for you on your behalf?
  • Are they representing your challenges correctly?
  • Is there anything important not being said?

Effective Communication

Ways to effectively communicate for yourself include: 

  • Speaking up for your needs
  • Correcting people when they don’t seem to understand
  • Bringing up any points that are left out 
  • Coming up with questions to ask prior to an IEP meeting

The most basic of requirements for an IEP meeting depends on effective communication. Understand that all team members in an IEP are there to help the learner succeed. When learners, as the most crucial people in the IEP,  use their voices to help other IEP members support them, their educational challenges and needs can be better accommodated.

Self Advocacy Beyond School

Ultimately the learner should be an active participant in the IEP through self advocacy; however, self-advocacy should not be limited just to an IEP or to educational settings. Once learners have learned the basic elements of self advocacy, they can use it in countless situations!

Ways to self-advocate beyond school:

  • Ordering your own food at an eatery 
  • Obtaining work
  • Keeping a job 
  • Negotiating any contract
  • Speaking up for yourself in any situation

These are just 5 ways in which self-advocacy can be used beyond school. 

Can you think of any other areas that self advocacy might be important?

How adults can help to support self advocacy

Schools can foster self advocacy by providing a safe environment for learners to share their preferences and needs. 

Self advocacy is an important life skill and should begin in the early stages of life. Ideally, this would be impressed upon learners by most adults in their life; however, school is one of the most natural settings for them to practice this skill.

How adults can encourage and support self advocacy in school:

  • Start by allowing learners to make small decisions in their learning (e.g., a choice of books for the day)
  • Allow and encourage learners to speak for themselves 
  • Encourage learners to choose among activities they’d like to do rather than picking for them
  • Encourage learners to choose what they’d like to eat/drink for lunch in the cafeteria if possible 
  • Be sure to allow learners to ask questions and to fully understand.

Stay In Touch

The Alt+Shift newsletter provides updates on our professional learning opportunities, informs readers of upcoming events, and highlights resources for people who work with students with disabilities.