Resource 10: Advocating for Special Needs


Advocating for Special Needs

Preparing to Advocate

  • Tips for Teachers and Allies: When learning to self-advocate, it is easy to feel lost and like your situation will never change. Help people with disabilities process their experiences by being a sounding board and building self-awareness. Support their reflection on strengths and barriers.
  • When you prepare to advocate for special needs, find someone to talk through the following:
    • Strengths, Weaknesses, Likes, and Dislikes (SWLD): Think about places where you feel like yourself and more at ease. Why is this the case? Fold a piece of paper so that you have four squares and label each square with “strengths”, “weaknesses”, “likes” and “dislikes” and fill them out for what is most true for you.
    • Barriers: Think about what gets in the way of your success. Focus on a specific context and the factors that make learning, engagement, and participation harder for you.
      • Goals: How do the goals of a task make it difficult to even begin?
      • Materials: Are the materials difficult to use or engage with?
      • Activities: Do the activities involve skills that are overly challenging for you?
      • Assessments: Do the assessments make it difficult to express what you know?
      • Environment: Does the space, noise, or time constraints make it hard to learn?
      • Relationships: Do the people involved make it hard to fully participate?

Structuring Uninterrupted Remarks

  • Sometimes, you have a chance to advocate through a speech or a set of opening remarks, where you have dedicated time to make your needs heard. When this is the case, make sure you prioritize the most important needs and keep your remarks focused and to the point.
1. Begin with what you hope for and want to be able to accomplish in a particular setting. “Someday, I would like…
2. Describe an example of a time when you tried to accomplish something and it felt impossible and why this was the case. “One time, I tried this, but…”
3. Outline the barriers that get in the way of full participation (including perceptions of ability due to a disability label). “I find it challenging when…”
4. Say what you’d like to be different and what would be possible if your needs were met. “Instead, I wish….”
5. Conclude with how the audience can help, even if it’s just to listen and collaborate. “Moving forward, I am looking for…”

Approaching Discussions and Meetings

  • Other times, you have to make your needs known in more unstructured, conversational settings, like discussions or meetings. Here are some tips for how to approach these situations:
  • Tips for Ideal Situations:
    • If you can, try to keep meetings and discussions intimate, ideally 1:1 or in a small group. Try to avoid overly public situations for discussions about special needs.
    • Bring an ally or identify someone in the meeting who makes you feel comfortable speaking up.
    • Bring notes in case you get overcome by emotion and lose your train of thought.
    • Before the meeting, ideally submit an outline of an agenda for what you want to cover. This helps set people’s expectations and prepares them to listen.
  • Tips for Situations You Can’t Control:
    • Focus on one high-priority need you want to address that impacts a large part of your work or performance. Figure out in advance what will have the most ripple effects or what will be the easiest to change in the short-term.
    • Give as many concrete examples as possible.
    • Anticipate that, with some audiences, you may be individually blamed for not being able to overcome an obstacle, or that you may be thought of as “too sensitive”. Be prepared to describe why you have been successful in other contexts and focus on the specific barriers that get in the way in this specific case.
    • Keep the conversation constructive and specify the help you need, who you need it from, and over what period of time.
    • Recap any next steps and follow up.

Improving Situations Over Time

  • Build your community. Seek out people you can be vulnerable with, who will help you articulate your thoughts and prepare for contentious situations.
  • Practice describing your needs as often as possible, starting in situations that are more comfortable and low-stakes.
  • Spend time comparing and contrasting different situations and notice any differences in when you are more successful and when you feel most uncomfortable. What patterns do you notice?
  • Find buffers for more challenging situations by seeking out people and places that build upon your strengths and interests.
  • Find people with similar challenges and needs and listen to how they speak about them.
  • Write down the ideal for yourself. In the ideal world, what do the goals, materials, activities, assessments, environments, and relationships look like? How will you feel in the ideal?
  • Over time, gather words and language to talk about your needs. What phrases or examples seem to help provide a window into your experiences? What resonates with different audiences?
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