Defining and Promoting Self Advocacy Skills in Higher Ed

At college, students with disabilities are responsible for their own learning and support, through self-advocacy. So how do we define and encourage it?

Clock 3 min read Calendar Published: 5 Mar 2019
Author Luke Garbutt
Defining and Promoting Self Advocacy Skills in Higher Ed

At college, students with disabilities face full responsibility for their own learning and support, and the key to success is often linked to self-advocacy. So how do we define and encourage it?

In this post, learn:

  • How to define self-advocacy
  • What makes a self-advocate
  • How you could improve self-advocacy skills for your students

Self-advocacy skills are essential for students with disabilities in higher education to possess. But for many, it can be a struggle. In fact, studies have indicated that only around 19% of students with a disability receive accommodations in the higher ed classroom, whilst a mere 28% of those with a qualifying disability inform their institution of it in the first place.

Putting aside all other considerations, this would suggest there’s a deficiency in self-advocacy skills at higher ed institutions.

So what defines self-advocacy as a stand alone skill? And how can schools and institutions teach it? These are the questions we want to ask and, by looking at some commonly accepted definitions and associated behaviours, help to answer them too.

First, let’s look at the term itself and what it means in practice.

What is self-advocacy?

A helpful definition of self-advocacy comes from LD@school, a Canadian project focused on children with learning disabilities. Their site defines self-advocacy in the educational setting as the ‘ability to speak on one’s own behalf and represent personal needs and interests’.

They look at it as being connected to the broader state of self-determination; a knowledge of one’s strengths and limitations, the belief in oneself as capable, effective and successful, and the extent to which a person assumes responsibility for his or her own goals and setbacks.

This is a useful place to start when thinking about self-advocacy skills in higher ed.

As is almost always mentioned alongside this subject, college presents an entirely different environment for students with disabilities. Having accommodations provided for you as a matter of course in secondary education is replaced by the need to actively seek support as a higher ed student. This is especially apparent for individuals with invisible disabilities.

So what specific kinds of behaviours are associated with self-advocacy?

Self-advocacy skills in action

Students with strong self-advocacy skills will:

- Know their strengths and weaknesses

A good self-advocate will have intimate knowledge of their disability. This will include the obstacles that it presents in the classroom, but it also includes an awareness of individual strengths and talents.

- Know their rights

Just as important is awareness of their rights and entitlements. Access to reasonable accommodations is guaranteed by federal law in the US and EU law in Europe/UK. If denied, a self-advocate would challenge this decision.

- Know what’s out there to help them

Having prior knowledge about tools, services or accommodations that could help in the classroom makes for better self-advocacy. This includes knowing what doesn’t work as well as what does

- Speak up and request assistance when needed

This is probably the most important individual skill students with disabilities need. If a student feels unable to make requests through disability services, it will harm their chances of receiving the right support.

These are some of the basics, but they’re a good indication of how a self-advocating higher ed student views and accesses support and accommodation.

The question that naturally follows is how could schools and colleges help encourage this mentality among their students?

Fostering Skills

The earlier self-advocacy is encouraged and enabled, the more natural it will be in postsecondary education. It’s a learned skill, and as such requires nurturing to become a strong element of a personality. As such, it should form the cornerstone of any successful transition plan.

Research on the subject published in the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability identified five recommendations to help develop self-advocacy skills among students:

  • Self-advocacy workshops in school
  • Student participation in IEP meetings
  • Regular messages of support from family
  • Preparation for different types of self-advocacy at college
  • At higher ed institutions, disability services and academic advisors discussing self-advocacy with students and identifying strategies for improvement

The authors arrived at these conclusions through a study involving students with a range of disabilities at a postsecondary institution. By conducting interviews and identifying common themes, they also define self-advocacy as comprising 3 distinct types.

  1. Proactive – Seeking accommodations before they’re needed (usually before the semester). Taking steps like getting to know staff in the disability office.

  2. Reactive – Self-advocating in the face of a challenge or obstacle (includes reacting to objections from or negotiating with faculty, for example)

  3. Retrospective – learning from mistakes and reflecting on failures of self-advocacy

Possessing all three is how a student ensures they’re not only receiving the right support now, but have the ability to respond to changes and review past actions to improve support later. So promoting the understanding that self-advocacy is multi-faceted and requires a varied approach is especially important.

Discussing Success

Perhaps the best way to understand the importance of self-advocacy is to see how it works in action. In our recent webinar, we discussed self-advocacy and student independence with Lauren Sebel, Director of Student Accessibility Services at Austin Community College.

By creating a culture of self-advocacy on campus and piloting assistive technology that creates greater independence for students with disabilities, Lauren has helped transform academic experiences for the better.


Written by Luke Garbutt

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