Self-advocacy helped me become a scientist despite the negatives associated with my multiple learning disabilities
“Collin, here are the letters you need to give to all of your professors,” my college’s disability resource official told me at the end of our learning disability assessment meeting.
“That makes me nervous. Can’t you just tell all of my professors I have learning disabilities? Just email them,” I pleaded, scared to admit that I didn’t want to tell my professors I needed accommodations. How embarrassing.
“No. We prefer all registered students to talk directly to their professors. It’s good practice, you’ll see.”
I walked out of that meeting with a stack of letters to my professors. Each letter explained that I had multiple learning disabilities and that I was allowed to receive accommodations. I nervously shoved each of these letters into my backpack, dreading those conversations. I’m basically walking up to my professors to announce, “Hey, I’m stupid.”
I was a freshman at Bradley University eager to prove that I belonged in college. I was nervous because I have multiple learning disabilities and although I received accommodations in high school, I didn’t have my mom or long-time tutor by my side. I felt alone in my schooling, for the first time in my life.
To my surprise, every conversation I had with each of my professors was easy and they kept getting easier. I went from tepidly apologizing to them for the accommodations I was allowed my freshman year to confidently thanking them for giving me accommodations my senior year. At the time I didn’t realize it, but I was learning the skills of self-advocacy.
Sixteen years ago when I was a freshman in college, I wasn’t sure I could make it to graduation. Today, I have a PhD in molecular virology and microbiology, currently a postdoctoral associate at University of Pittsburgh, after 3 years as a postdoctoral fellow at University of Cape Town. Additionally, I advocate for other students with learning disabilities, and most importantly, I am really happy. The primary reason I was able to overcome the negatives associated with my reading disorder and learning disorder was learning how to self-advocate. Upon reflection, I realized that I had already practiced some degree of self-advocacy throughout my entire life.
- In elementary school, I was always a part of my IEP meetings. I didn’t quite understand the nuances of what was happening, but I understand that a lot of adults were working together to make school better for me. This showed me that it was ok for me to receive accommodations, to ask for help, and that other people were advocating for me.
- My tutor in elementary school told me to choose seats near the front of the class when I could. I was easily distracted, and this allowed me to pay better attention. It was also a way for me to self-advocate without having to ask for help from anyone.
- My tutor also taught me to ask questions when I didn’t understand. This is something I continue to do today, which is an invaluable trait as a scientist. By giving me confidence to ask questions I not only built a better grasp of the content, I also learned that other people had the same questions. This also helped me feel less alone.
- Most of my teachers in elementary and middle school would ask me what accommodations I would need for a test or for an assignment, even though they knew. This was important because this taught me that it was ok to talk to people of authority about what I needed.
- In high school, college, and graduate school I recorded important lectures. I knew I needed extra time to process complex information. This helped show me that it was ok to go out of my way to make classes valuable learning experiences for me.
- In college and graduate school, I learned that I needed to ask to follow professors back to their offices to finish my extended time exams. If I didn’t ask for that extra time I would not have received it.
- As a career scientist, I still need to learn the best way to communicate with my coworkers and bosses. Although that has changed a lot over the last decade, my ability to self-advocate is the primary reason I am productive at work. Through a significant amount of trial and error I was able to learn the best ways to talk to my bosses, lab technicians, and other scientists. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I hadn’t spent the last 20 years slowly learning how to self-advocate.
Self-advocacy is a process that takes time to learn and cultivate over the years, but it is well worth it. We need to teach students with learning disabilities to self-advocate as earlier as possible. We need to re-enforce every day. Together, we can help students learn how to help themselves.
How have you learned to self-advocate over the years? What advice would you give to help students better self-advocate for themselves? What advice or tools have you given your child to advocate for themselves?
Dr. Collin Diedrich is a scientist, author, learning disability advocate, and professional speaker. You can read more about him and his work at LDPhD.org. Dr. Diedrich is also working on starting an LDA of Pennsylvania state affiliate chapter.