By Annika Grassl
The ability to advocate for yourself and others is increasingly important in today’s social and political climate. Around the world today, millions of people are being marginalized by more powerful groups based on religion, race, ability status, and countless other opinions and social factors that differentiate groups within societies around the world.
One of those groups, for example, is people who are disabled. For me, this is personal: I have a visual impairment, so I have had to learn to advocate for my rights in and out of the classroom since I was in elementary school.
My goal with self-advocacy isn’t just to create a better learning environment for myself. I am passionate about giving people with disabilities the tools to gain inclusion into educational structures around the world through the breaking down of social, political, and economic barriers. These barriers restrict the social inclusion of children in their communities.
When people from marginalized communities self-advocate, we can change the status quo for our peers—even the next generation. By reaching out to contacts that focus on similar issues, we can gain expertise on how to influence decision-makers who can assist us in creating actionable change for our cause. Personally, my persistent advocacy for myself as a student with disabilities has ensured that I receive the services that I needed to succeed, such as assistive technologies to see the whiteboard or class materials and the use of alternative testing environments. For others, my advocacy in the state legislature resulted in more funding for special education students across Minnesota.
So how do you learn to self-advocate? Here are five key tips:
· Understand your fundamental rights. It is impossible to advocate for yourself or others without first understanding what your rights are. This allows you to determine what changes you would like to see in order to benefit a community. For example, I learned about the Americans with Disabilities Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by asking teachers why I was receiving services at no extra cost. These conversations sparked my interest, which resulted in countless hours of research on laws and rights pertaining to people with disabilities.
· Perseverance is essential. The pushback and obstacles experienced in advocacy can be daunting at times. It is important to keep your end goal in mind to keep your spirits high to motivate you during the challenging times. When I was in middle school, I received a letter saying that I couldn’t participate in AP classes in high school because my visual impairment would create an extra obstacle in those classes. But I was determined not to be held back, so I applied to a different high school my sophomore year, switching to a new, more supportive environment that increased my independence and prepared me more effectively for college.
· Reach out to experts. I would not be the accomplished advocate that I am today without relying on the experience and expertise of others. During the creation of my legislative advocacy portfolio, I made a point to interview special education teachers at both the elementary and high school level to illustrate their experience with the funding cuts in a professional setting. I even met with the director of special education for my district to discuss the final proposal.
· Don’t take things personally—even though the cause is personal. It is important to remove yourself from the situation and understand that you’re working on a cause bigger than yourself. I had to learn that any criticism I received was not directed at me, personally, but rather the materials and suggestions that I was presenting to state representatives and senators.
· Be adaptable. As you work through the advocacy process, from identifying the problem to addressing it to evaluating your actions, it is important to constantly adapt your strategy based on feedback received. This will ensure an effective advocacy campaign. When lobbying the legislature, I took their feedback, such as the importance of concrete data, visuals and effective storytelling, to refine my advocacy materials.
Annika Grassl is an MA in Sustainable International Development candidate at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. She has previously interned for Handicap International in London and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee in Washington, D.C. She works to protect and promote the rights of people with disabilities, with a specific focus on inclusive education of children with disabilities in mainstream classrooms.