Mentor Tip: Self-Advocacy

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Subject: Mentoring tips on self-advocacy

One skill for success is self-advocacy. Being able to self-advocate requires that people become experts on their disabilities, know what specific services and help they need, and use strategies to obtain this support. Their lives should not be defined by the assumptions and decisions of others.

Following are statements from individuals with disabilities about taking control of their lives. They can provide insights into mentoring young people to become better self-advocates.

  • If a student does not speak up in school when she needs help because she cannot see the blackboard or she cannot read the book in front of her, she will fall behind in her schoolwork and have trouble achieving her goals. Disabled individuals need to remember that people are not psychic; if they have a problem and they do not tell anyone, nobody is going to magically figure out what the problem is. The more vocal you are, the more willing people are going to be in helping you. (college student who is blind)
  • When I was in high school, I would talk to my teachers individually each year to describe my needs to them. The teachers found this to be extremely helpful to them, and I found it helpful as well. When teachers or professors know a student's needs and what they can do to help a student excel, it makes everyone feel secure. (college student who is blind)
  • There is a difference between being the recipient of an act ("victimized") and allowing yourself to become overly affected by that act (to become a "victim"). (adult with mobility impairment)
  • We don't have to be "victims" of other people's assumptions. We are only victims if we choose not to take charge of a situation. If you are blind and someone grabs your arm and pushes you across the street and you don't say anything but would like to, then you are letting the other person force the result of his assumptions on you. If you, on the other hand, say either, "Thank you, but I'll be fine" or "Let me take your arm," depending on what you would like to do, then you are taking charge and aren't a victim. (adult who is blind)
  • I agree with others about taking charge so that we are not "victimized" by other people's assumptions. When [a blind person] tells a bystander, "Thanks, but I don't need your help," the bystander learns (we hope!) that people with visual impairments don't always need help. And when I ask the airline staff at the gate to tell me what someone has just announced over the public address system (which I can't lip-read, unfortunately), the airline staff person learns (again we hope!) that deaf people are capable of asking for help when they need it. So by being assertive, we lead people to look at their perceptions of us and even change them from inaccurate ones to more accurate ones. (adult who is deaf)
  • The more often I express my needs and preferences, the easier it becomes. The easier it becomes, the more comfortable I am, and that makes people more comfortable, and on and on and on. And somewhere in the midst of this is also the need to be both polite and clear. (adult who is deaf)
  • The way to preempt or erase assumptions is to tell people what you need rather than let them "act out" what they think you need. It is okay to say what you need help with. I think that is part of being independent. (adult who is blind)
  • Just by going about your normal business, you also show people what you don't need help with. After all, we all make assumptions, and even if a person has met someone with your disability, that other person may have had different abilities and needs than you do. For instance, people always assume that I access a computer using speech output, but I use a Braille display. The point is that communicating your needs is the best way to make everybody comfortable. (adult who is blind)
  • Tell people what you can do. Until a while ago, people doubted my wanting to work with games and graphics. I have a vision problem but so what. I'll give it a try, and if I can't then I can't. It's worked quite well so far. Like this semester I wanted to take an art class. My instructor had no past experience with someone visually impaired. I guess you don't see low vision students enrolling in a drawing class too often, but I love the class and am doing fine. (college student with a visual impairment)
  • Some people feel that because you have a disability you can't do normal tasks by yourself. I've even had people ask me if I wanted them to open my soda can for me. I think the best thing to do is to be assertive when people do something, or want to do something, for you that you feel you can do for yourself. I think people are just trying to be helpful and that they don't know for sure how much help, if any, they should give. (high school student who is blind)