Success Characteristic #3

Once you have a good sense of your areas of disability and your strengths, as well as ways to compensate (which includes accommodations), you are more able to be a good self-advocate. “Self-advocate” or “self-advocacy” are terms you probably have heard of before, especially if you have had your disability throughout your schooling. It may have even been “drilled” into you in high school when you may have been given more responsibility for asking for what you need, such as accommodations, from your teachers. But what does “self-advocacy” really mean?  According to, “self-advocacy” means “to represent oneself”. In elementary and high school, you may have had other people (parents, teachers, etc.) represent you in order for you to get what you need. In college, and, as an adult, you are expected to represent yourself and your needs as a self-advocate.

Applying self-advocacy to people with disabilities, Skinner’s (1998) definition of good self-advocates are students who: “(a) understand their disability, (b) are aware of their legal rights, and (c) can competently and tactfully communicate their rights and needs.”[1] (Skinner, 2004, 98) The (a) of Skinner’s definition can be achieved through developing within yourself the first success characteristic: knowledge and acceptance of disability. The (b) of his definition is beyond the scope of this article but it is important to realize that the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to all individuals with disabilities, including those with “hidden” disabilities such as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders and psychological disabilities.

The (c) of his definition is the action part of being a good self-advocate, not just knowing how. To “competently and tactfully communicate” your accommodation needs to professors is a skill that can be learned. You can practice how to advocate for yourself and your accommodation needs with others, including your case manager, perhaps by using a “script” of what to say until you become more comfortable. It is always helpful to be tactful and direct, instead of demanding, when discussing your accommodations with instructors. You can introduce yourself, state you are registered with DRES and discuss the accommodations you will need with the professor (and sometimes the “TA” – teaching assistant). It is best to make an appointment with instructors during their office hours or at another mutually convenient time for you and the instructor.   

While the majority of the time that you will advocate for yourself is when you are asking instructors for accommodations, there are other situations where you will need to be your own self-advocate. One of these situations is being willing to ask questions when you do not understand something, such as a lecture or discussion in class. Depending on the culture of the class, you may be able to ask your question(s) during class time or you may need to wait until the professor’s or TA’s office hours. As an example, given the large numbers of students in most lecture classes, you will probably need to wait to ask a question after the class has ended but discussion sections led by TA’s will probably encourage you to ask questions in class.       

[1]Skinner, M. (2004). College Students with Learning Disabilities Speak Out: What It Takes to Be Successful in Postsecondary Education. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, v. 17, n. 2, 91-104.