Self-Advocacy Essentials

There are lots of terrific resources that discuss some of the essential skills of self-advocates. The things to know and skills included here are based on that important foundation. Key resources include: 

Essential Things to Know About

Before you dive into self-advocacy there are some things that you should know. Knowing these things will help you be a more reflective and effective self-advocate. 

Self-awareness is a critical part of self-advocacy. Simply put, you can’t advocate for what you need, if you don’t know what you need. Here are some critical things to reflect on:

  • What do you need/what are you looking to accomplish?
    • What do you hope to do or to change?
    • What are your goals?
    • What is your ideal outcome?
  • Why do you need it/why do you feel like it is important to accomplish?
    • Who are you as a learner?
    • How does your disability impact you?  
    • What are your strengths?
    • What are some of your limitations and needs?
    • What are your preferences?
    • What supports have you had in the past?
    • What accommodations have been helpful for you?
  • Have you had to self-advocate before?
    • What did you learn from that experience?
    • What skills did you develop?
  • How do you like to communicate?
    • Do you like email?
    • Do you like to communicate face-to-face?
    • Do you prefer virtual or in-person meetings?

It is not only important to understand yourself, but you also need to understand your context. Your context depends on who you are and where you need to advocate. For example, advocating for policy changes takes understanding different things than advocating for an extension on a paper.

Some key things to consider about your context include:

  • Your major and college
  • Your course
    • Course syllabus
    • Modality (face-to-face, online, hybrid)
    • Canvas site and course materials
    • Course timeline
    • Assignments and exams  
      • Where (testing center, professor's office, etc.) and when (scheduled exam time and extended time) exams will occur
      • Assignment due dates and details 
    • Available supports and flexibility for all students
  • Your instructor
  • Your SAS accommodations
  • Your support network 

Effective self-advocates with disabilities should also have an understanding of accommodations and the accommodation process. It is important to get in touch with SAS to:

  • Engage in the interactive accommodation process
  • Have accommodations approved
  • Learn more about your accommodations
  • Get support with accommodations
  • Help resolve concerns or grievances

Role of SAS in Supporting Self-Advocacy

Of course, good self-advocates also know that the accommodation process does not end with accommodation approval. For accommodations to be effectively implemented, students should know:

As a self-advocate, you have a number of rights and responsibilities. These are important to understand when you are advocating. Not only does it help you know some of the ways in which you can advocate, but also how you can approach advocacy.

*Adapted from: Wehmeyer, M. L. (2007). Promoting self-determination in students with developmental disabilities. and Bill of Rights | Center for Excellence in Disabilities (

A Self-Advocate’s Rights

  • I have the right to self-determination.
  • I have the right to pursue my goals and aspirations.
  • I have the right to an effective education.
  • I have the right to be heard, listened to, and respected.
  • I have the right to pursue the support I need.
  • I have the right to reasonable accommodations.
  • I have the right to advocate on behalf of others.
  • I have the right to pursue a process.
  • I have the right to report bias and discrimination.
  • I have the right to learn more about my rights and the law.

A Self-Advocate’s Responsibilities

  • Understanding your rights.
  • Respecting the rights, beliefs, and values of others.
  • Treating all people with compassion and respect.
  • Being timely in reporting concerns or issues.
  • Being proactive when requesting support.
  • Identifying your strengths, areas of improvement, and needs.
  • Understanding university, department, and course policies and practices.
  • Communicating professionally and honestly with university students, faculty, and staff.

Essential Things to Do

There are also some things that self-advocates should be able to do. This is not an exhaustive list, but will give a good sense of where to get started. 

Communicate Effectively 

Being an effective advocate requires effective communication. It is not just understanding what you need, but also understanding how to communicate that need to effect change. Of course, there are lots of ways to communicate effectively, and there isn’t a specific script that will work every time. There are, however, some general things for you to consider:

When you are communicating directly, it is important to listen actively. Active listening is more than just hearing and processing that information internally. It is a way to show you are paying attention and you care about what the other person has to say. Active listening includes (What Is Active Listening? ( 

  • Non-verbal things like looking at the person, not interrupting them, open and positive body language, and taking notes.
  • Verbal communication like asking clarifying questions, asking open-ended questions, confirming what the other person might have said, striking the right tone.
  • Emotional things like staying calm, managing your reactions, considering the emotions of the person you are listening to. 

Effective advocates are assertive. They know their rights and what they want to accomplish, and are able to express that in a way that helps them meet their goals. This often requires you to be assertive. Assertiveness requires someone to be clear and direct, but also collaborative and respectful. Hadfield and Hasson (2014) created a list summarizing assertive communication. They included: 

  • Attitude - I'm ok, you're ok. Flexible, open. Optimistic. Confident. Decisive, positive. Aware, warm, kind. Supportive, willing. Secure. Appreciative
  • Behavior - Constructive. Problem-solving, Solution-focused, Negotiates. Cooperates, listens. Interested. Inclusive. Able to give and take compliments and criticism. 
  • Voice - Calm, steady and even. Encouraging. Sincere.
  • Words - Shall we? What do you think? I need. I would like. Thanks. 
  • Body Language - Balanced open gestures. Heads up. Eye contact. Smiling. 

Hadfield, S., & Hasson, G. (2014). How to be assertive in any situation (2nd edition).

It is important to recognize how different that communication style is from aggressive communication. Aggressive communication can tend to come off as demanding, manipulative, and sometimes abusive. Even with the best intentions, aggressive behavior often does not lead to positive short-term and long-term outcomes.

It is important to always keep your communication professional, but this is especially important when it comes to self-advocacy. Professional communication is:

  • Respectful and considerate
  • Authentic and genuine
  • Thoughtful and well-planned
  • Clear and concise
  • Compassionate and understanding
  • Mindful of non-verbal communication and tone

There is nothing wrong with being open, honest, and friendly, but it is also important to remember to keep things professional. 

If communicating in writing, keep in mind the 7 Cs of professional writing (2.2 Communicating with Precision – Technical Writing Essentials ( 

  • Clear
  • Coherent
  • Concise
  • Concrete
  • Correct
  • Complete
  • Courteous

Effective communication is also timely. Exactly when things need to be communicated can depend on the context, but timely often means reaching out proactively or as soon as possible if there is an issue or concern. Examples of timely communication include:

  • Communicating proactively about a need or a goal. 
  • Communicating with SAS about an accessibility need. 
  • Creating a "semester request" early in the semester. 
  • Reaching out to your instructors early in the semester. 
  • Communicating soon after an issue occurs or a concern is raised. 
  • Following up after a discussion about accommodations. 

This timely communication is critical because often needs can only be addressed proactively and issues should be resolved quickly.

Plan Proactively

When it comes to self-advocacy, proactive planning is very important. Though we can and do react to issues as they arise, it is much easier to either avoid the issues before they come up or, if the issues were unavoidable, be able to come up with a good plan before taking action.

A good self-advocacy plan should include:

  • Your goals
  • Your plan/strategy
  • Your back-up plan

Make Informed Decisions 

A big part of self-advocacy is making the best decisions you can. These can be decisions within the self-advocacy process itself, but also decisions more generally about your education. Thomas, et al. (2021) provided some key aspects of informed decision making as it relates to self-advocacy. They included: "Find and apply relevant, trustworthy information. Recognize opportunities to make decisions. Weigh risks and benefits of options. Make decisions based on priorities." (Thomas, T. H., et al. (2021). A Conceptual Framework of Self-advocacy in Women With Cancer.)

Though Thomas, et al. were discussing self-advocacy in a medical context, students also make important decisions about their education all time time. These can be smaller decisions like when to start studying for an exam or bigger decisions like whether you should withdraw from a course before a deadline. Making sure that these are informed decisions is an important part of being a good self-advocate. 

Lead for Others

Self-advocacy is about more than just reaching a personal goal. Effective self-advocates understand that their advocacy can and does have a bigger impact on the community. They not only advocate for themselves, but also value justice, equity, and fairness for other community members. An effective self-advocate keeps this in mind when they are advocating because they understand their words, actions, and outcomes can go beyond themselves.

For example, a student might advocate for the effective implementation of their exam accommodation. The more direct goal might be to have their exam accommodation implemented, but there are additional impacts worth considering. That interaction also helps the instructor learn more about accommodations and how they are implemented. That instructor can now be more effective for students in the future.