by AnneMarie Molinari-Sanders, Texas Center for the Advancement of Literacy & Learning, Texas A&M University and Candace Joles, COPE Student Support Services, Vincennes University

Self-advocacy is the ability to speak up for yourself and the things that are important to you. For individuals with learning disabilities (LD), self-advocacy means that you can explain what you need and why with confidence ( 

Being Aware of Your Rights is Vital to Self-Advocating and Being Successful

In K-12 schooling, as a person with a disability, you were guaranteed a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The shift to the “adult” world requires you to make decisions about pursuing post-secondary education or other vocational training and/or seeking career opportunities and managing daily independent living demands. At that time, the federal laws that provide equal access to education and other public services shift too (A Transition Guide to Postsecondary Education and Employment for Students and Youth with Disabilities. Washington, D.C., 2017.). Once you are out of K-12 school, your rights as a person with a disability are protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAA) of 2008. 

It is not essential to divulge specific personal information about your disability when self-advocating. This means you do not have to disclose that you have dyslexia, anxiety, etc. It is most important and helpful is to provide information about:

  1. how your disability affects you;
  2. the environment, supports, and services you will need in order to access information, successfully participate in discussions or interactions, and to excel at your work;
  3. your strengths and which strategies have worked in the past and continue to help you excel in your college course or at your position at work.  

Make sure to schedule a meeting with your instructor or supervisor at work to discuss when something is unclear, if you need to discuss and/or have someone explain records in your file – especially when you receive written notice of an unfavorable decision – or explain the reasons if you have been denied a request. 

Self-advocacy is a negotiation process. You must appropriately explain your need, the requested accommodation, and your ability to perform the task either in the classroom or in the workplace ( and 

Helping Others Understand Self-Advocacy

Understanding their rights under federal law is only half the challenge for a student with learning disabilities as they transition out into the adult world. The other half part of the challenge is knowing and understanding themselves and what they need to be successful.  

Self-advocacy plays a critical role in the success of adults with learning disabilities; however, the lens of discussion related to self-advocacy often focuses on those individuals who are transitioning to universities, community colleges and/or starting a career. When transitioning to adulthood, there are actually two groups of adults with learning disabilities: adult education and literacy (AEL) students and those transitioning to universities, community colleges, or the workplace from K-12 schooling. 

Adult Education and Literacy Students

Self-advocacy is critically important to a group of adults who may not be prepared to enter college or hesitant to pursue the career of their dreams because they are deficient in fundamental reading, writing, and mathematical skills and/or immigrants who need to learn English. These individuals are adult education and literacy (AEL) students. This group comes to adult education (AE) with class with a myriad of complicated profiles including diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disabilities or other disabilities, limited basic skills or English proficiency, previous incarceration, generational illiteracy, homelessness, drug/alcohol abuse, along with many other challenges (National Institute for Literacy, Learning to Achieve: A Review of the Research Literature on Employment Experiences and Outcomes for Youth and Adults with Learning Disabilities. Washington, DC. 2010). From the perspective of a former AEL teacher, herself, students who attend AE classes are searching for a new beginning and guidance from educators who will inspire and encourage them to self-advocate for themselves and chart a new course to success.

Adults Transitioning from K-12 to College and the Workforce

Many people with learning disabilities have developed compensatory strategies (things that they did to help them balance for certain troubles or difficulties they were having) while in high school, and have a good handle on what individuals need to be successful in college or on the job. Many of these individuals may not have realized that they were even utilizing compensatory strategies. For example, perhaps a person tends to forget information that is presented visually but can remember information when it is presented orally. A compensatory strategy would be to record verbal instructions to relay information multiple times or utilize reader software such as Kurzweil. The individual may have been doing these things for so long, or so automatically, that they no longer realized it was to accommodate their disability. 

When requesting accommodations, an adult should base their request on their existing skills and strengths and then disclose their limitations or challenges and describe what accommodations have worked best in the past and why. For example, “I have difficulty recalling information I hear verbally in class or a meeting without a PowerPoint, but with the use of a recorder, I am able to perform my tasks accurately”. The end of that statement reinforced that the person with a learning disability has challenges but will be able to perform the assigned tasks with the presence of that accommodation. 

Disclosing means that individuals self-advocate their needs, accommodations, and ability to perform the assigned tasks. Disclosing at college or work provides individuals with disabilities the ability to level the playing field. Without disclosing and obtaining needed accommodations, individuals may not be able to perform the tasks accurately and at the performance level as their non-disabled peers. When talking with an individual with a disability, remember to end the discussion with positive language to reinforce that, with accommodations in place, their outcomes and performance will be at least the same as their non-disabled peers (National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, 2005). 

Prosocial Self-Advocacy

If you are an individual with a disability, it is also important to remember that it is not essential to divulge specific personal information about your disability. Your disability is only important if it affects or potentially affects your ability to perform the essential academic or job functions. Keep the self-advocacy disclosure focused on your abilities, not your disability. One suggestion for developing this skill is to role-play and practice with people that you are familiar with prior to self-disclosing or self-advocating for accommodations with professors and supervisors. Shelia Graham and Ronald English, wrote an article in 2001 that includes some practice scenarios that can help you practice disclosing. Some prosocial self-advocacy strategies include: scheduling an appointment during office hours to discuss an accommodation versus a last-minute chat in the parking lot with the professor; scheduling an appointment to meet with your supervisor or Human Resources to disclose your disability, discuss your strengths, and then discuss accommodations such as noise cancelling headphones, using speech-to-text software, written directions or a tape recorder for notes or details for tasks to be done, or organizers. 

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has an excellent resource for practical solutions and workplace success entitled Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with a Learning Disability (2019) that provides additional strategies along with sample situations and solutions. 

Some Final Notes

Remember, accommodations at college or work are provided only when an individual discloses his or her disability and requests reasonable accommodations. The ADAA specifies legal protection against discrimination. Keeping the secret such as a learning disability and/or Attention Deficit Disorder can take a lot of energy and in turn decrease productivity or outcomes. In addition, learning self-advocacy skills ensures that people with disabilities can fulfill their potential. 

People with learning disabilities or other hidden disabilities are typically more resilient and work harder because they have always had to work harder than everyone else. Self-advocating for reasonable accommodations ensures a person will receive what he/she needs in order to be successful with assigned tasks, which in turn improves an individual’s self-esteem and self-image, therefore, increasing his/her comfort level and ease of completing duties.


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