YOU are your best advocate!

Studies have shown that students who use self-advocacy skills are more likely to earn higher incomes one year after graduation (Wehmeyer, 2004). Self-advocacy is taking control of your own life—independently making choices and choosing what is important to you. You may be wondering what all the fuss is about. You may feel like you already are making decisions for your life. Have you taken time to consider the following areas of your life? Let's answer each of these questions:

What is dyslexia?

You need to know about dyslexia and be able to explain it to someone else. Think of this as your elevator speech. When you are self advocating, you might say, "I have dyslexia, which is a language-based learning disability that affects 5-10% of the population. My brain is wired differently which means that I have trouble with the processing the sound components of language." A more in-depth explanation of dyslexia can be found here. If you have teachers or family members who think that you merely reverse your letters (this is not dyslexia), you may share Debunking the Myths About Dyslexia with them.

Now that you have a working understanding of what dyslexia is and can explain it to others, you need to know specifically how it impacts you. You may have trouble with…

  • Sounding out words accurately and quickly
  • Spelling
  • Reading smoothly
  • Reading comprehension
  • Vocabulary
  • Working quickly

Some people with dyslexia also struggle with organization, note taking, test taking, and working memory (holding several things in your mind for a brief time).

Practical Tip: It may be helpful to have a brief script to tell teachers, employers, or friends about your dyslexia. Keep it short and specific. You might start with this one and then personalize it or put it in your own words. Practice this script with a safe person and then use it with teachers, employers, family, and friends:

"I have dyslexia which is a language-based learning disability that affects 5-10% of the population. My brain is wired differently, which means that I am really good at (list things that you are good at), but have a harder time with­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ (list weaknesses from the list above)."

What strategies and accommodations help me learn best?

One of the best things you can do to self-advocate is to be knowledgeable about your strengths, talents, gifts, interests, and learning challenges. Have you ever taken the time to consider the things that you are good at? Have you considered the way that you learn best? Knowing your profile of strengths and weaknesses can help you to self-advocate and do your best in school, at work, and at home. Most people learn by hearing information (auditory learners), seeing information (visual learners), or by doing things (kinesthetic learners). Many of us use all of the above. If you are unsure about your strengths and weaknesses, an assessment from a professional may be helpful, especially if you discuss your goals and the assessment is designed to answer your questions and help you better meet your goals.

Once you know your profile of strengths and weaknesses, identify the strategies (tools that would help you) and accommodations (changing the format of class/work) that would help you learn or do your job best.

Potential Accommodations:

  • Preferential seating (e.g., sitting where you can see the board and teacher’s face)/quiet workspace
  • Advance notice of assignments/tasks
  • Alternative ways of completing assignments/tasks that align with your strengths (e.g., oral presentation versus written paper)
  • Assistive computer technology
  • Note takers, lab or library assistants, readers, interpreters)
  • Captions for film and video material\Course or program modifications
  • Document conversion (e.g., audio supports for written documents)
  • Test modifications (someone to read the questions to you)
  • Study skills and strategies training
  • Time extensions
  • Taped lectures
  • Highlighted textbooks
  • Extra set of textbooks for home use
  • Computer aided instruction
  • Rearranging class schedules
  • Individual contracts
  • Modifications to the environment (e.g., study carrel, student's home, separate room, etc.)
  • Video tape the lecture or watch supplementary videos
  • Free academic tutoring (available for core academic areas at many colleges and universities)

Potential Strategies:

  • Review previous learning (to connect with the new information)
  • Preview what you will learn about
  • Look at an example of what you will do
  • Break down long directions into smaller parts
  • Highlight the main idea and important vocabulary in your textbook
  • Use manipulatives to move around for problem solving
  • Select projects based on interests
  • Participate in a study/work group where you can discuss ideas with others
  • Opt to complete a project rather than take a test
  • Take advantage of your professor’s office hours/talk with your supervisor
  • Attend multiple sections of the same class for repetition
  • Utilize the writing lab for editing and revising your papers

Remember, you’re not asking for special treatment when using accommodations. School assignments and tests completed with accommodations should be gradeyd the same way as those completed without accommodations. After all, accommodations are meant to "level the playing field," and provide equal and ready access to the task at hand, and not meant to provide an undue advantage to the user.

Practical Tip: Summarize what interests, strengths, and potential challenges in a sentence or two. Example, "I best process new information by talking it through with someone else. I have a creative flair and love anything related to art and drama."

What are my legal rights?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that sets standards for the education of individuals with disabilities. The Individual Education Plan or IEP falls under the IDEA regulations. While IDEA provides the overarching laws and regulations regarding special education, the states are allowed to "interpret" these laws as long as the basic standards of IDEA are met. See the most current revision of federal mandates here.

What’s the difference between an IEP and 504?

If you are in grades K-12, and have a significant amount of difficulty with learning, it is usually preferable to have an IEP, because IDEA is the federal law (with some funding behind it) that mandates that schools comply with specific standards and processes in implementing an educational plan. An IEP is a legal document containing goals, accommodations, as well as additional learning intervention such as: tutoring, academic support, reading therapy, etc. It is the school’s responsibility to implement the IEP and review it annually. The IEP will track your progress on the stated goals.

A 504 plan lists the modifications and accommodations you will need to have the opportunity perform at the same level as your peers. The "504" in "504 plan" refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which specifies that no one with a disability can be excluded from participating in federally funded programs or activities, including elementary, secondary or postsecondary schooling. If you have a 504, you will have to take the initiative to tell share it with your teachers at the beginning of the semester and request the specific accommodations listed in the 504.

Practical Tip: If you don’t have an IEP or 504, request one. If you are in high school, you should ask your guidance counselor. You will first complete testing to determine the best plan for you. If you are in college, you can contact the specialists on your campus at either Learning Support Services or Academic Support Services. You may be asked to bring documentation of your learning disability. Typically, some testing is completed prior to providing a 504 Plan. In regard to work, you'll need to talk with your employer in regard to accommodations via the ADA.

If you already have an IEP or 504, look for the following in your report:

  • When was it last updated?
  • What learning weaknesses and strengths were reported?
  • What accommodations are listed?
  • If it is an IEP: what were your goals? What type of intervention was specified?

Basic rights covered in an Individual Education Plan (IEP):

  • The IEP will meet the unique learning needs of the student with the disability.
  • Parents and students will be informed of their legal rights (including certain steps, procedures, and timelines are followed from start t finish). For example, a written notice will be provided before there is any change in placement.
  • A family has a right to an independent educational evaluation at public expense, if there is disagreement with what the schools have determined the student’s disability to be.

Section 504 refers to the Vocational Rehabilitation Act (ADA) of 1973 and is a civil rights law. It protects the rights of people with disabilities against any sort of discrimination in a program that receives federal funding. Section 504 requires a school to make reasonable accommodations for students with special needs.

Basic rights covered by Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA)

  • Expands the definition of disability under the orignial Americans with Disabilities Act, preventing discrimination in employment and in public and private settings
  • Protects children and adults with disabilities
  • Applies to all public and most private schools and colleges, testing agencies, licensing authorities, and state and local governments

Read more about ADA here

Basic rights covered by Section 504:

  • No person with a disability shall be excluded from the participation in, or subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving financial assistance from the federal government.
  • If you feel that you have been discriminated against due to you difficulties with learning, reading, writing, or working, you are entitled to protection under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • You are entitled to an evaluation by multiple sources.

What should I do to get support at the beginning of a new school year/semester?

One of the most important aspects of self-advocacy is planning ahead. If you are attending a college or university, as soon as you have been admitted contact the Student Support Office. Be sure to have your educational testing updated in high school before you head off to college because, most likely, the college or university is going to ask for recent certification of your learning disability. They usually want this within two years of admission, but schools vary. The multi-step process includes (but is not limited to):

    • An initial meeting with a guidance counselor or learning/academic support specialist
    • A battery of tests
    • Tests results/a report
    • A follow-up meeting to discuss what services/accommodations can be provided
    • Meeting with the professor(s)/teacher(s) to let them know about your needs for the class

    When you participate in goal setting, you have a vested interest in achieving those goals. Part of self-advocating is participating in IEP meetings (in high school) and initiating meetings with college professors, employers, or anyone else who would need to know about your dyslexia. Telling them ahead of time about the accommodations and strategies you will need in order to succeed can set you up for success. It also demonstrates a great deal of confidence and responsibility. In your meetings, discuss your goals (specifically for that semester or job, and how that will help you for the future). It will be helpful to plan this out ahead of time (and to have some notes in front of you) when you do this.

    Practical Tips:

    Go to Academic Support Services at your college or university webiste to find out about the services they offer. Schedule an appointment to talk with the staff there.

    Keep your important documents organized in a binder. Be sure to include:

    • Any reports or standardized testing that you’ve had before
    • Your most recent 504 or IEP (if applicable)
    • A list of accommodations you would find helpful
    • The business card of the guidance counselor/learning support specialist with whom you spoke
    • Information about the services provided at your school
    • A script with your profile of strengths and weaknesses
    • Goals that you have for yourself (both for the semester and long-term goals)
    • Bring a parent, friend, or mentor to the meeting. It can be helpful to have another person listen, ask questions, and take notes (or to debrief with after the meeting).

    How do I apply this knowledge in college?

    You need to decide how to best communicate your needs to the college or university, request specific accommodations, and supply supporting professional documentation. In public school, the school system has a duty to identify students with disabilities. This is not so in college. The student has the responsibility to disclose the disability and to request accommodations. You must be specific about the accommodations that you need because of your disability. It is not enough to say that you have a learning disorder. You will need to provide documentation.

    Once a student has sufficiently documented that he or she has a qualifying disability, a college is responsible for providing reasonable accommodations or modifications that do not result in unfair advantage, require significant alteration to the program or activity, result in the lowering of academic or technical standards, or cause the college to incur undue financial hardship. When accommodations are necessary, they must be provided in a timely fashion (Smith v. State University of New York, 1997)

    Let's look at an example:

    Jean is taking courses at the community college. She has a reading disorder, expressive writing disorder, and ADHD. She requested one and one-half time on tests, separate room for tests, a reader to read exam questions to her, and a scribe to take down her answers. She provided good professional documentation to support her request and was granted the requested accommodations.

    Note that there are student requests that the college is not obligated to grant. For example, if you did not request an accommodation on a test and failed it, generally you may not require the college to eliminate the failure from your record. Therefore, it is important to assure that you have your accommodation requests in place before the semester starts!

    How do I apply this knowledge in my everyday life activities?

    You need to be able to explain to others what supports you need to be successful on the job, in college or training environments, and when you’re living independently. You may not have realized that you can obtain assistance through:

    Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS)

    You can bring testing and reports that document your dyslexia to them, or have them complete an evaluation. VRS is a program of the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services (BRS), provides quality individualized services to enhance and support people with disabilities to prepare for, obtain or retain employment. Through active participation in their rehabilitation, people with disabilities achieve a greater level of independence in their work place and living environments. To find a location near you, see the VRS Statewide Location Map.

    Vocational/Habilitation Options

    • Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS) - provides comprehensive, coordinated, effective, efficient and accountable services needed by eligible individuals with disabilities to prepare for, enter, engage in and retain employment consistent with each individual's strengths, resources, priorities, concerns, abilities, capabilities and informed choice.
    • Supported Employment (SE) - individuals with the most severe disabilities are placed in competitive jobs with qualified job coaches/trainers to provide individualized, ongoing support services needed for each individual to retain employment. The employer is contacted monthly and the employee is visited twice monthly, either at or away from the workplace, to address any issues that may threaten the individual's ability to remain on the job.
    • Independent Living (IL) Services - promotes a philosophy of independent living including consumer control, peer support, self help, self determination, equal access and individual and system advocacy, to maximize the integration and full inclusion of individuals with disabilities in community leadership, empowerment, independence and productivity.

    It may be a challenging process to get the accommodations in place, but it will promote your ability to succeed.Persevere.

    Now you have the tools and resources you need to be your own advocate, which will help you take charge of your life. Success starts here!

Watch this YouTube video about Jake Sage, a dyslexic student who was able to overcome his struggles and excel in life.