Approaching a teacher and telling him or her that you have a hard time reading or spelling can be terrifying. Asking the teacher to give you things that other students don’t get, such as extra time, is daunting. If I could go back and change one thing about my educational experience it would be my ability to tackle these tough situations by having the confidence to ask for what I need and advocate for myself.
My name is Dessie and I’m the Public Policy & Advocacy Intern at NCLD. I’m a rising Junior Politics major at Whitman College and I have dyslexia. I’ve been teaching self-advocacy to elementary aged students with disabilities for the last two years. I’m passionate about self-advocacy because it is a skill that can have a direct and transformative impact on a student’s success. Here are my 5 tips on how to own your disability and be a self-advocate:
- Know How you Think
Metacognition, or understanding how you think, is the first step to getting the support that you need. The way dyslexia affects me is not necessarily the way it affects all dyslexics. A learning strategy or accommodation that works for me may not work for everyone. Thinking about your thinking allows you to figure out specific tools and strategies that can help you and complement your learning style. Walking into a self-advocacy situation knowing exactly how you can be best helped by your teacher, classroom, or school will make you a much more effective self-advocate
- Learn the Law
When I was in 9th grade, even though I had a diagnosed learning disability, my school took me off of my Individualized Education Plan (IEP) because I was doing well in all of my classes. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with a diagnosed disability are eligible for an IEP even if they have never failed a class. I was not involved in my IEP meetings and my parents did not know that what the school did was not allowed. If I had done my research, gotten involved, and insisted on being a part of my own educational decisions, I could have stood up for my learning needs. In order to effectively advocate for yourself, you need to learn the federal and state laws pertaining to disabilities as it relates to you.
- It’s Okay to Care
My learning disability has always been an emotional trigger for me. It was not until college that I was able to talk about my dyslexia without crying. This held me back from advocating for myself because I was afraid to look weak or cry in public. Not everyone tears up the moment dyslexia is mentioned, but many people have a lot of emotions woven into the chapters of their LD story. Don’t let the fear of showing emotion impede your advocacy. It shows that you care and can help to demonstrate to others how much this issue means to you.
- Find a Community
There is power in both the personal story and the collective story. For a long time I did not know that there were other stories out there like mine until I found a community of students with learning disabilities who could understand and corroborate my LD story. I became much more confident in my self-advocacy once I joined a community of advocates. Although my personal story is still essential in advocating for my specific needs, I feel more comfortable asking for accommodations knowing that other students need them too.
- Be Confident
You have the right ask for the help and resources that you need. It may feel awkward, uncomfortable, and scary, but your teachers, administrators, and policymakers want to see you succeed. Needing help is not something to be embarrassed about and asking for that help is not overstepping your bounds.
With Hill Day approaching and parents and students from all over the country coming to Washington to meet with their representatives, self-advocacy is a timely topic to revisit. Advocating for your own needs to a teacher is one side of the coin, and advocating for all students with disabilities to policymakers is another side. Strengthening your self-advocacy skills in the classroom is a great step towards building the skills for becoming an advocate for the entire LD community. I cannot go back in time and change my own high school experience, but I can help kids in school now. By telling my own story here in Washington, I hope to teach Congress that students with learning disabilities can be successful when our LD is identified early and we are given appropriate supports like assistive technology and other accommodations.
Throughout the summer, I will be writing blogs on my own experiences as well as what is happening in Washington, D.C. so stay tuned!