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Practical Ways for People with Disabilities to Become Self-Advocates

Are you someone with a disability who feels their voice is not being heard or others are making decisions for you that do not feel quite right? Do you know someone with a disability who feels their needs are not being met or that others are not treating them as equals?

The art of self-advocacy can help address questions like those above and empower people with disabilities to have their needs met, ask for what they want, and establish good relationships with others and most importantly make sure their voice is heard.

Why is it important to learn self-advocacy skills? Self-advocacy allows you to:

  • Have your needs met
  • Feel emotionally respected
  • Feel heard, respected, and listened to
  • Build good relationships with others
  • Communicate in an effective, respectful manner

Establish Expectations

Stop sign to establish boundaries

Stop sign to establish boundaries

Establishing expectations with yourself and others is the first courageous step to take in becoming an influential self-advocate. Boundaries not only help others know where you stand but can help create standards for yourself that you can strive for.

Do not expect others to rush in and save the day. For many people who have had disabilities since birth, a common experience is for our teachers or parents to advocate and speak up for us and this can often carry into adulthood.

Once you are no longer a child, it is important to learn how to advocate for yourself so you are not relying on others to guess or assume what you really need for yourself.

Learning how to self-advocate is EMPOWERING! Asking for what you need, speaking up when it is warranted will allow you to feel confident and good about yourself. You can even use these skills to help others advocate for themselves and nothing is more empowering than giving the gift of confidence to someone else.

Learn to Ask for Help

Asking for help can be one of the most difficult skills for many of us to learn. Especially if you grew up in a Westernized culture which values independence and self-sufficiency, many of us fear that asking for help will make us look weak or insufficient or dependent when in reality it is just the opposite!

Asking for help when you really need it, helps you build relationships with others by cultivating a level of trust with someone else. People like to help other people and it is much easier to help others when we know what they really need. How do we know what they really need if they don’t ask?

Do not feel ashamed about vocalizing those needs that you need assistance with. When you help yourself as much as possible, those you request help from will most likely be happy to help. If you are asking for help with things you know you can do yourself, however, you put your level of interdependence with others on the line.

Some easy ways to ask for help:

  • First, figure out what you can and cannot do on your own.
  • Be honest and straightforward to ensure your needs are being met.
  • Be polite – a please and thank you go a long way in keeping your relationships strong.
  • When possible, offer something in return.

Remember, asking for what you need is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of the strength of your character!

Engage in a two-way conversation

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Two-way conversation bubble

Two-way conversation bubble

While self-advocacy can help you make sure your own voice is heard, giving others a chance to speak and hearing what they have to say is just as important.

For example, if you do not like the way your caregiver or aide is helping you with a certain daily activity, make sure to let them know. Try something like,

“I am not comfortable with the way you are helping me get dressed in the morning. Instead of you telling me what you think I should wear, I would like to start choosing my own clothes.”

Or if you are a professional with a disability who feels your employer could improve the accessibility of your workplace, try starting the conversation with something like,

I wanted to bring up a suggestion for how our business could make our office more accessibility-friendly. When someone with a wheelchair tries to open the bathroom door, it is too heavy and narrow to fit through and open easily, making it difficult to access the facilities. What are our options for improving that for our employees and customers?”

Or if you have noticed someone repeatedly parking in the handicapped parking space who does not have a marked license plate or tag, try suggesting something like,

“Hello, I have noticed the past several days, you have been parking your vehicle in the space reserved for people with disabilities, but you do not have a tag or a license plate. These places are reserved for people who have mobility equipment and need the extra room to exit their vehicle or to more easily enter the building without walking a long distance. If you do not need the space, would you please consider moving your vehicle?”

Once you have voiced your opinion, ensure you give the other party a chance to respond and hear what they have to say as well. Often, people do not realize that their actions may be hurtful or that they may have been overlooking something. It’s always best to err on the side of caution and give people the benefit of the doubt.

It’s like the old saying, “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Voicing your opinion in a respectful manner and engaging the other party in a conversation rather than letting your emotions take over will help you get results.

Conversations don’t have to be easy, but they do have to be honest to get the results you need and to allow yourself to be as independent as possible.

Educate yourself and Know your Rights

There are attorneys who go to years of school to learn about disability law and all of ins and outs of the ADA. While you don’t have to have an attorney’s education to learn the law, it’s important to know your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at least at a high level.

Don’t forget to put all that knowledge to good use and exercise your rights:

  • Consider volunteering or joining a disability organization in your area to lend your knowledge and experience to help others.
  • Stay informed of recent laws affecting accessibility, housing, and jobs in your community.
  • Vote in elections and make your voice heard.

If there are certain issues you find yourself running into – maybe you are finding it difficult to find accessible housing, or you are struggling with how to address your disability at a job interview, or you feel you have been discriminated against in a public place - finding out what the ADA has to say about those situations can give you the ammunition you need to take the appropriate action that each situation requires.

Raise Awareness

Once you learn the art of self-advocacy, share the skills you’ve developed and advocate for awareness for disability causes you believe in. Awareness is the first step we can all take to help raise society’s consciousness of issues facing the disability community.

Why is awareness important?

  • Awareness can dispel stereotypes and misconceptions.
  • Awareness breaks down barriers and helps others see people with disabilities as equal peers.
  • Awareness keeps disability issues top of mind can help others take action.
  • Awareness can make a difference!

Some easy ways to raise awareness for your disability cause:

  • Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper about an issue that is important to you.
  • Write or call your local representatives and let them know your voice and why an issue is important to you. While it is important for members of the disability community to let their voices be heard politically when a disability issue is on the table, it is also important to make your voice heard on other issues important to you. It shows our representatives that the disability community are contributing members of society.
  • Establish a social media campaign and spread the word on your Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, or Pinterest.
  • Ask your friends to join the cause. There is strength in numbers so ask your network to help you spread the word by sharing on their social media accounts, consider writing a letter to the editor of their own, or calling their local legislators.

What is self-advocacy? In the voices of people with disabilities

Self-advocacy boils down to identifying and knowing how to communicate your needs to others so that you can live your best life possible. Like most things in life, self-advocacy skills take time and practice to master. Once you master the art of self-advocacy you will start to feel more control and sense of confidence and competency in yourself, regardless of your level of independence.

Are you someone with a disability who has mastered the art of self-advocacy? Have you helped someone you know become a stronger self-advocate? Share some of your tips and self-advocacy strategies in the comments!


WheelerWife (author) from Minnesota on September 07, 2015:

Great tip, Birgit Huffman! Thanks for sharing your story

Birgit Huffman on September 06, 2015:

When I moved to my current address I found they did not have a handicapped accessible bus for the residents. Part of there advertising promised that the community bus would take residents to various local grocery stores, banks, the mall, and other various activities. I am in a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury. When the owners of these apartments were unresponsive, I call the state attorney general's office. They referred me to the state Civil Rights Commission. I called, received paper work to fill out and return and in short order I had a lawyer from the civil rights commission working for me and a bus was provided that was handicapped accessible. Every state has a Civil Rights Commission - call yours.

Quinzy52 on September 05, 2015:

The apartment I live in is on the first fllor. That's a good thing. On the 2nd floor is an Indian family that has a kid that POUNDS the floor for up to 17 hours a day. The Memorial Day wkend it was 85 times on sataurday and 182 times for the 3 days. Then in July it was 196 times for 3 days. The management refuses to do anything. I have told every elected official and I get no response. I tell BCIL and the housing authority that my section 8 voucher is through. They do nothing. I have told SCI Boston and they do nothing. I have told the MA office on Disability and they do nothing. I want to move to Weymouth Place and cannot because the interior doors are too narrow for my power wheelchair. There are other things that would need to be done. WP was built in 1970. I would welcome any suggestions.

WheelerWife (author) from Minnesota on June 22, 2015:

hi strategylab - thanks so much for your nice comment! Advocacy is so important for all of us to keep fighting the good fight :)

Jeph Maystruck from Regina, SK on June 21, 2015:

Awesome work! We need more advocates like you in our society! Keep doing what you're doing!



WheelerWife (author) from Minnesota on September 15, 2014:

Hi Denise! Thanks for sharing your story. Happy to know you found a great support network!

Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on September 15, 2014:

As a School Psychologist, I helped students I worked with develop self-advocacy skills, but I didn't realize that one day, I would need to use these skills myself! While my daughter was in the local hospital mental health unit, I had a very difficult time going there to visit her. My own anxiety would spike and I would become physically ill due to the difficulty of the task. When visiting with a friend about the issue, she suggested that I take someone with me. When I went to my local church group and asked for volunteers, several people stepped forward. It was a life-saver for me! They got to know the difficulties both my daughter and I were dealing with, and after her hospitalization, they kept in contact with us. Having this additional support has been very helpful!

WheelerWife (author) from Minnesota on September 14, 2014:

Hi Dealforaliving - yes, completely agree! Speaking out about our needs is so important - thanks for your comment!

WheelerWife (author) from Minnesota on September 14, 2014:

hey Wheelinallover - thanks for sharing your journey to self-advocacy! So glad you have found the process empowering. Thanks for stopping by

Nick Deal from Earth on September 14, 2014:

This is such an important topic as people often sit around waiting for someone else to be the advocates. We're living it, so we should be the ones to speak out about it!

Dennis Thorgesen from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on September 14, 2014:

What I found is when I changed my thinking, life changed. I am not handicapped, I am handicapable. There is nothing wrong for asking for help with what you can't do yourself. You will always find someone who is willing to help you.

In my life it has always worked best if I offer something I am capable of in return. My business runs the same way. I actually chose a profession where it takes four minds to create the final product. This means there is no choice other than collaboration. Each of us realize without the other three there will never be a finished product.

When you take the above attitude with those who provide help for you it is empowering. Yes a caregiver can do it all, then where are you in the equation? When you do your part it empowers both the caregiver and the receiver. It also makes it simpler to open the dialogue it takes to create more happiness in your life.

If I had not learned to self advocate I was told that today I would be curled in the fetal position. In that case I would be worthless to myself and the world. Because a dear friend helped me adjust my thinking from "I can't" now there is much more that I can do, sometimes this requires help. I am no longer afraid to ask when I need help.

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