Self-advocacy, or speaking up for yourself and your needs, can make your daily life more accessible, safe, and comfortable, especially if you have a disability.
Self-advocacy can be helpful in many different situations. For example, by advocating for yourself and asking your school for accommodations, your school can make it easier for you to fully participate in class. Self-advocacy can also improve your relationships. For instance, by having the courage to discuss your boundaries with friends and family, you can help increase understanding and compassion among everyone involved. In the end, having potentially challenging conversations can make your relationships healthier and stronger.
It’s important to remember that we all have the right to determine what our needs are and advocate for them. However, it can take time to build the confidence and skills we need to be able to effectively advocate for ourselves.
Becoming a confident and competent advocate isn’t something that just happens overnight. Self-advocacy is a skillset and mindset that we build throughout our life.
Some tips for building your skills and comfort advocating for yourself include:
- Take time to get to know yourself. A big part of being able to advocate for yourself is understanding your needs. Make time to think about what your needs are and how you would like them to be met. You can write your ideas down so that you can reference them later. To stimulate your thinking and better understand your needs, you can try chatting with someone you trust, listening to a podcast about disability advocacy, or reading about other people’s experiences navigating disability.
- Assess your advocacy strengths and weaknesses. It’s also important to consider your advocacy skills, such as your assertiveness and communication. Try asking yourself: which advocacy skills do I feel confident in, and which ones do I want to work on? Does my confidence in my advocacy skills change depending on the setting? For example, you might feel confident communicating your needs to the people in your house, but not at school. Try to be as honest as you can when answering these questions, because they will help you understand the advocacy skills you currently have and those you may need to focus more on building up.
- Learn about your rights. Knowledge is power! Knowing the rights that you have can help you become a better self-advocate by understanding the ways in which your needs can and should be met. There are laws that protect people with disabilities’ right to advocate for themselves and receive accommodations. There are also organizations and services that exist to help you advocate for yourself. For example, you can visit the National Disability Rights Network website to learn more about the rights of people with disabilities.
- Write an advocacy script. When we are stressed out or under pressure, it can be difficult to use, or even remember, the skills that we have worked on. Creating a script to use when we need to advocate for ourselves can help. Try practicing having challenging conversations about your needs and expectations with someone you trust or by yourself in the mirror at home. Write down the specific sentences, phrases, and words that help you best express yourself. These can be included in the script you keep on hand to help guide future discussions. An example of a script to help advocate for yourself with your friends and family members could be: “I want to talk with you about my needs and ask if you could help me meet them. I am very sensitive to loud noises, and they make me feel overwhelmed and anxious. When you play your music at a high volume in the car, it stresses me out and makes it hard for me to focus on our conversation. Would you mind playing the music at a lower volume when I’m riding in the car with you? I would really appreciate it.”
- Practice asking for and accepting help. It can be uncomfortable to ask for help and to accept help from others. But, when we incorporate asking for and accepting help into our day-to-day life, it can get easier. Try making it a habit to speak up about everyday things that may be affecting you. This could include pointing out when someone is talking over you, asking a person to repeat themself if you missed what they said, or telling someone your food preferences when they ask. You can also help others practice asking for and accepting help by asking questions like “Are you comfortable?” or “Is there anything you need right now?”
- Identify the support you have. Advocating for yourself is essential, but you don’t have to do it alone! Think about the people in your life who can help you advocate for your needs. This might be a family member, a friend, a teacher, or another person you trust. Talk to them when you need support advocating for yourself, and ask if they will help. Getting support in advocating for yourself could mean having someone you trust show up with you physically or virtually to a meeting, taking part in the conversation in a way that you’ve agreed on beforehand, or being there afterwards to keep you company and talk about what happened.
To hear more tips from young adults with disabilities who have learned to advocate for themselves, you can watch these videos.
Don’t forget to take time for self-care. Advocating for ourselves can be exhausting! There will be times when we are frustrated with others, ourselves, or a particular situation, and that is normal. Self-advocacy is hard work, so we need to remember to treat ourselves gently and with kindness. Having regular self-care practices where you spend time doing what makes you feel good, such as reading an interesting book or listening to your favorite music, can be a great way to rest and relax. Find self-care strategies that work for you, and be sure to use them alongside your self-advocacy to protect your well-being!
Check out these resources to continue learning about self-advocacy:
- 4 Steps for Stronger Self-Advocacy
- Voices of Youth’s Advocacy Tools & Resources
- Youth Self-Advocacy and Empowerment
Author: Gillian Joseph (they/them) is a queer 2-Spirit Ihaŋktoŋwaŋ and Mdewakaŋtoŋ Dakota storyteller who grew up as a guest on Waxhaw and Catawba lands. Alongside writing, they work in the mental health field with a focus on Indigenous health sovereignty.