What is Self-Advocacy?

There are lots of ways to define self-advocacy, but at its core self-advocacy is the ability to effectively communicate your needs to meet your goals (self-determination). As discussed by Test, et al. (2005) self-advocacy is a process that involves:

  • Knowing yourself and your context
  • Knowing your rights and responsibilities 
  • Building communication skills and strategies
  • Collaborating and leading with others 

In other words, it is more than just saying what you need. It is being thoughtful about yourself and your goals, coming up with a plan, and knowing how to effectively collaborate.

Why is Self-Advocacy Important?

Self-advocacy is one aspect of self-determination. One definition of self-determination is from the West Virginia University Center for Excellence in Disabilities. They wrote:

Self-determination is an idea that includes people choosing and setting their own goals, be­ing involved in making life decisions, self-advocating, and working to reach their goals. Although people often say it, self-determination is really not about control. It is about taking action in your life to get the things you want and need. (Self-Determination | Center for Excellence in Disabilities (cedwvu.org))

In short, self-determination is about being able to choose your own path. One important skill needed to reach your goals is the ability to self-advocate. 

Self-advocacy skills extend beyond the classroom and beyond accommodations. Self-advocacy is needed throughout one’s life. For example, there might be a time when you have to advocate for something in your workplace or even with your friends. Your goals are not limited to the classroom, so neither is self-advocacy. Building these important skills can help you in multiple environments. 

Engaging in self-advocacy helps us build a wide range of skills. Effective self-advocacy involves skills related to:

  • Self-reflection and self-regulation
  • Verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Proactive planning
  • Leadership
  • Conflict resolution and compromise

Of course, you don’t need to be an expert in each of these areas to be a great self-advocate. These are skills that you continue to build as you continue to advocate.

Self-advocacy is not just about getting what you want in the moment. It is about learning to create professional relationships and ensuring that relationship is fostered over time. When you build a professional relationship with someone, the person will better understand your needs, be more willing to be flexible, and be more willing to compromise and find creative solutions together.

For example, being an effective self-advocate helps you to build relationships with your instructors. Your instructors not only know your name, but also know that you are committed to and engaged with the course materials. This helps everyone get on the same page about implementing accommodations as well as concerns that might come up.

Misconceptions about Self-Advocacy

It is true that some people seem like they are able to self-advocate more naturally than others. The reality is that these people have spent the time and effort building the skills to be effective self-advocates. When it goes well, self-advocacy can look easy, but the truth is that self-advocacy requires skill-building and courage. Fortunately, these skills can be built; we can all become effective self-advocates.

Self-advocacy can also feel mentally and emotionally draining. When we advocate, we are required to be thoughtful and reflective while also managing challenging conversations and disagreements. This can take a lot out of a person. Good self-advocates know that they need to take care of themselves and pay attention to how much their emotional battery is being drained. 

Sometimes we think that  if we stand up for our rights or speak about our needs, other people will see us as being difficult or contrarian. We also might think that people will see us as a burden or less than others. The reality is that we all have different needs and have the right to pursue our goals. When done in a professional and collaborative way, self-advocacy is often welcomed and seen as essential in ensuring an effective team.

Additionally, advocacy not only benefits the person advocating, but also the person who is responding to the concern. Many people are very open to advocacy because it means they get to learn and become better practitioners. People respect and admire effective self-advocates and appreciate their efforts.

Sometimes people think that self-advocacy is just asking for (or demanding) what you want. While asking is one aspect of a request, effective self-advocacy involves far more than just asking. Self-advocacy is a process that involves understanding yourself and your context and communicating your needs. It involves creative problem solving and compromise. It involves building relationships and understanding the impact that you might have beyond your specific situation. One part of the process is making a request, but there is more to self-advocacy than just that.

Some people mistakenly believe that self-advocacy should only happen if their need reaches a certain  severity. It is true that all people must make a decision about when it is worthwhile to self-advocate, but that decision does not need to be based on severity of the condition.

The reality is that we can all benefit from self-advocacy. Self-advocates are not the people who have the most severe conditions. Anyone can be and should be a self-advocate because we all have a variety of goals at different times in our lives. There isn’t a threshold for how much struggle you need to endure before self-advocating. Good self-advocates know that being proactive and advocating early will help alleviate future concerns.

Self-advocacy should not be confused with extroversion. While an extrovert might find more comfort and energy in connecting and building relationships, anyone can be a good self-advocate. There are a wide range of skills involved and no one does all of them well without learning, preparation, and practice.

The reality is that effective self-advocates are introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts. The important part of being a good self-advocate is reflection, planning, communication, and follow-up. Anyone can develop those skills and use them effectively.

Some people mistakenly believe that if their needs are not met from the start, then it means the person does not care about them or their goals. Self-advocacy is related to your goals and, ultimately, self-determination. We all need to advocate to meet our goals because not everyone is aware of our goals and what we hope to accomplish. For example, an instructor might be aware of the course goals, but might not be aware of your personal goals. The reality is that people are often very willing to help, but they just don’t know what your goals are ahead of time. 

It is important to reframe this misconception. Rather than saying you don’t have time for it now, it is important to think about what you will lose if you don’t advocate for your needs. What would the consequence be of not having your needs met?

Yes, self-advocacy can take up time (though sometimes less time than you think it will), but often advocating earlier can help avoid additional issues and concerns down the road. It can take time, but it is worth it.