Teaching Self-Advocacy

Self advocacy essential to success

Studies have shown that students who use self-advocacy skills are more likely to earn higher incomes one year after graduation (Wehmeyer, 2004).

It can seem like there is not enough time to add yet another goal to your student's IEP. However, one of the most effective uses of your time is to teach him how to self-advocate. It will give him greater confidence, self-awareness, and success. Most importantly, it will convey (more powerfully than words) that you believe in him. Sit down with your student and ask him one or more of the following questions.


  • How do you think your dyslexia affects you in all the areas of your life?
  • How do you think you learn the best?
  • Are there any strategies that seem to help you?
  • What do you know about your IEP/504?
  • Are you familiar with your goals and accommodations?
  • Do you know where to go for learning support?
  • Do you know your legal rights?

Depending on your student's responses you can facilitate more in-depth conversations about each of these topics. Make this a reinforcing time for your student. Compliment him on emerging executive skills such as: initiative, follow-through, or problem solving. Use this as a way to introduce self-advocacy, (e.g., "I like the way that you are _____, and I think it's time for you to self-advocate, or speak up for yourself. This wil help you become more independent in school decisions that relate to you.") Make discussions brief (15 to 20 minutes is plenty), but a regular part of your intervention.


Potential Self-Advocacy Goals for the IEP

If you haven't already, let your student know that you would like to help him to self-advocate this year in order to take more responsibility for his learning. Talk about the benefits of self-advocacy to get your student's buy in (e.g., "You will likely achieve higher grades, get a better job, and live more independently"). Then, develop a self-advocacy goal with your student to include in the IEP. Below are several examples.

  • Sandra will spontaneously define self-advocacy as well as 3 ways that she can self-advocate in her daily life (e.g., telling teachers about her dyslexia, asking for accommodations, and knowing her legal rights).
  • Peter will face the teacher and use an even, conversational voice when asking for testing accommodations from his IEP (as measured by teacher observations)
  • Bill will participate in his IEP meetings and will offer his goals with the help of a script.
  • Jessica will state at least 2 legal rights that she has with an IEP.
  • Becca will initiate a call/email to her teachers at the beginning of the semester requesting specific accommodations.

Talking to Your Student: "What is Dyslexia? How does it Affect Me?"

Your student needs to be able to describe dyslexia in his own words. You might explain to your student that, while many people have heard of dyslexia, they think that it's just reversing letters. Be prepared to share your definition of dyslexia and then help your student to craft one in his own words.

When talking to your student you might say, "You need to know about dyslexia and be able to explain it to someone else. When you are self advocating, you might say, 'I have dyslexia, 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.'"

You and your student might review Debunking the Myths About Dyslexia and decide to share this information with others.

Explain to your student, "So, from what we’ve watched/read, dyslexia may affect you in a lot of different areas. What do you think you have trouble with?" (It may help to give him some choices):

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

You might add, "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). Do you think that any of those areas are hard for you?"

Remember, this is a process of self-discovery. It is generally counter-productive to tell your student something he is not ready to hear. Through your leading questions and the resources you provide, your student will learn more about himself. This is a journey that will take some time (so feel free to revisit the same questions later on).

Practical Tip: You might encourage your student to take an additional step by forming a brief definition and personal narrative to share with teachers. Then role-play (you take the role of the teacher) so that your student gains confidence and fluency in using the script (much like an actor who has rehearsed his lines).

You could suggest, "I think it would be helpful to have a brief script to tell teachers, future employers, or friends about your dyslexia. Here's an example, maybe we can change it so that it is in your own words."

I have dyslexia, a language-based learning disability, which 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).

Offer, "You can practice saying it to me and I'll pretend to be the teacher. You're kind of like an actor, because you'll have to practice to make this seem natural.

Talking to Your Student: "How do I learn? What Strategies Help Me?"

You can probably identify how your student learns best. For example, can you verbally tell him a message (auditory learner) or do you need to write it down (visual learner)? Maybe your student needs to learn how to do something alongside you (kinesthetic learner). With this conversation, you will deepen your student's awareness of himself and lay foundation for self-advocacy in every area of his life.

PART ONE: You might start by saying, "In order to be successful, you need to be knowledgeable about your strengths, talents, gifts, interests and learning differences. Have you ever taken the time to consider the things that you are good at? Have you thought about the way that you learn best? Knowing your strengths and your learning style can help you to self-advocate (speak up for yourself) and do your best in school, at work, and at home."

You might continue, "Some people prefer to learn by hearing information (auditory learners), seeing information (visual learners) or by doing things (kinesthetic learners). Some people are visual-spatial learners; they need the big picture first before learning the details. You may find that you gravitate towards a couple of these styles. To find out which kind of learning style you prefer, it might be fun to take a little survey together (I'll do my learning profile and then you do yours)."

You might conclude, "So I'm a ______ learner, and you're a ________ learner. Do you agree with that?"

PART TWO: You might query, "Now that you know your learning style, imagine that you could learn that way in your job or class. What tools would help you? Those are called 'strategies'. How could the teacher change the format of class/work for you? That's called an 'accommodation.' Let's look at a couple of lists of strategies and accommodations, and you mark the ones that sound like they might be helpful for you."

Potential Accommodations

  • Preferential seating (e.g., sitting where you can see the board and teacher's face)
  • Advance notice of assignments
  • Alternative ways of completing assignments (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 group (especially if you are an auditory learner)
  • Opt to complete a project rather than take a test
  • Take advantage of your professor's office hours
  • Attend multiple sections of the same class for repetition
  • Utilize the writing lab for editing and revising your papers

You might need to reassure your student, "Remember, you're not asking for special treatment. School assignments and tests completed with accommodations should be graded 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 give you an unfair advantage."

Practical Tip: Suggest, "Let's summarize what your learning style, interests, and strengths in a sentence or two." Share your learning profile with your student. (E.g., "I am an auditory learner and I process new information by talking it through with someone else. I have a creative flair and love anything related to art and drama.")

Talking to Your Student: "What's the Difference Between an IEP and 504?"

Try using the following script to talk to your student about his IEP or 504 Plan:

"Let's talk about your IEP/504 Plan. It's important that you know what is in it, because it's about you. You might need to explain it to one of your teachers when you need extra time for a test. You won't be able to do that unless you take time to know what is in your IEP/504."

You may ask your student, "Do you know what an IEP is?" If he does not, you can briefly explain, "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 follow the IEP and review it each year. The IEP will track your progress on the goals."

"Have you ever heard of a 504 Plan? Well, A 504 plan lists the modifications and accommodations you will need because of the way your brain is wired. The 504 will give you the opportunity to perform at the same level as your peers. With a 504, YOU will have to take the initiative to share it with your teachers at the beginning of the semester and request the specific accommodations listed in the 504."

Practical Tip: Now you may want to personalize the discussion to your student's IEP or 504 Plan. You may find the following script helpful. "Do you remember how we talked about your learning style, strengths, and weaknesses a few weeks ago? We made a list of learning strategies and accommodations that would help you to learn in a way that makes sense for you. Let's see if that matches up with your IEP/504 Plan. Let's look at it and see if we can find the answers to some of these questions:

  • 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?
  • Do you agree with the goals/accommodations listed? Are there any others that should be added?"

Talk to your student about his concerns and questions using the FAQs below.

IEP & 504 FAQs

Why do I need an IEP/504?

That's a great question! Your brain is wired differently and so you will have some talents that other kids don't have, and you will have some difficulties that other kids do not have. The law states that every student has the right to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) for all students. The IEP gives the school a legal responsibility to teach you in a way that does not penalize you for your dyslexia. It contains progress that you've made, goals for the upcoming year, and accommodations that will help you achieve those goals. A 504 only gives you accommodations without tracking your progress and providing intervention.

What is the difference between an IEP and 504?

An IEP gives you the chance to strengthen areas that are pretty weak as well as accommodations to the classroom/environment. This intervention will be built into your regular school day. A 504 just gives you access to accommodations based on your dyslexia.

I don't want to look different from my friends!

None of your friends need to know about your IEP or 504 Plan unless you choose to share that with them. If you have to leave the room to take a test or work on a certain class, you can just tell them that you are taking a "college prep" class. The IEP goals and accommodations will only be known to you, me, and your teachers.

Do I have to go to the meetings?

It's usually a good idea to come for at least part of the meeting. You know yourself the best and can share your perspective with your team. Also, it will increase your awareness about your IEP/504 Plan so that you can take an active role in your learning.

Do I have to take a bunch of tests?

Typically, some testing is completed prior to obtaining an IEP or a 504 Plan. The testing will help the school to know how you learn best and what your strengths and weaknesses are. The testing usually lasts between 2 and 4 hours. It's kind of like taking the state achievement tests, only it will probably be administered in a one-on-one setting.

Who do I talk to about getting an IEP or 504 Plan?

If you are in middle school or 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.

Talking to Your Student: "It's a New Year/Semester, What Should I do?"

Plan to connect with your student during the spring and strike up a conversation about the upcoming school year. You might try the following script: "How did you feel about your learning and your grades this last year? Were there any classes that you struggled with more than others? What would help you next year with a more challenging workload? While it's on our minds, why don't we make a list of what we should do next fall to set you up for success:

  • Let's set up an initial meeting with a guidance counselor or learning/academic support specialist.
  • You might need to do some testing.
  • We will need a follow-up meeting to discuss what services/accommodations can be provided.
  • We should schedule a meeting with the professor(s)/teacher(s) to let them know about your needs for the class.
  • I really would like to hear your goals for yourself for this upcoming year.

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 employers, college professors, or anyone else that would need to know about your dyslexia. Telling them ahead of time about how you learn and what accommodations and strategies you will need to use 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

  • "Let's go to Academic Support Services and pick up the brochures about the services they offer, or we could find this information on your college's webpage.
  • I'd like you to keep your important documents organized in a binder. This will help your organization and will make it easy for you to refer to these when you are asking for accommodations. Let's 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 that you talked to.
    • Brochures about the services provided at your school
    • A script with your learning strengths and weaknesses
    • Goals that you have for yourself (both for the semester and long-term goals)
  • Who do you want to be at the meetings with your school staff? It's usually a good idea to bring a parent, friend, or mentor to the meeting to help you stay calm. It is also helpful to have another person listen, ask questions, and take notes (or to debrief with after the meeting).


Talking to Your Student: "What are my Legal Rights?"

Your student is going to learn more about this by doing a little legwork rather than hearing you talk about this topic. Give your student a small research project to do that will illustrate the legal rights students have under IDEA and ADA. This should be reinforced with extra credit, a day to work outside, a game day etc. Here are some scenarios that your student can respond to in his research project:

  • Renee has poor vision. She is in a regular classroom, but just can't seem to keep up with note taking. She also has a hard time typing papers and taking tests. What are her legal rights and what laws protect her?
  • Thomas is the best art student in the school, and he has dyslexia. His teachers tell him that if he just put in the same amount of effort on his assignments that he does on his art projects, he would be getting straight A's. Thomas has spent hours on his homework, but he usually can't finish all of the assigned readings for the next day, and he always "chokes" on the tests when he has to recall and spell certain terms for science and history. What services might he receive under IDEA?
  • Randolph had an IEP all throughout high school because of his learning disability. He is starting his freshman year of college. What laws apply to him? What can he ask for in college?

You might provide your student with the following information ahead of time:

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or 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. For the most current revision of federal mandates, visit IDEA's website.

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

Learn more about ADA here


Practical Tip: Debrief with your student after he presents the information that would help Renee, Thomas, and Randolph. Ask him how these laws apply to him. Dialog about how knowing your rights can help you to be assertive and take charge of your learning.

Talking to Your Student: "How do I apply this knowledge in college?"

If your student is getting ready for college, it is a prime time to talk about self-advocacy with him. Discuss how you want him to take the lead in getting the learning supports that he needs. You could use the following script, "You need to disclose your disability to the college, request specific accommodations, and supply supporting professional documentation. In public school, the school system has a duty to identify students with disabilities. That is not the case in college. In college, the student has the responsibility to disclose the disability and to request accommodations. You will have to be specific about the accommodations that you need because of your disability. It is not enough to say that you have dyslexia.

Once you have provided the necessary paperwork and completed any testing that needs to be done, the 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)."

Discuss the following examples with your student: "Sarah 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. There are student requests that the college is not obligated to grant. For example, Hannah did not request an accommodation on a test and failed it. Then she wanted the college to eliminate the failed course from her record."

Practical Tip:Have your student set an appointment with Learning/Academic Support Services as soon as he has been accepted to the school. Inquire what paperwork will be needed to receive accommodations.

Talking to Your Student: "How do I apply this knowledge in my day-to-day life?"

While school is an essential area for your student to use self-advocacy, there are plenty of other areas where it is needed. Set aside some time to talk about his role in advocating at the doctor's office, at work, or when signing a lease. You may consider using the following script and resources. A good time to raise this conversation is right before or after the IEP meeting that includes the "transition plan," for students 14 and older.

You might introduce the topic in the following manner: "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 in all of these areas of your life 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. Let's find the VRS closest to us."

VRS Statewide Location Map Here are some of the services that they offer:

  • 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. After you have had several or all of these conversations with your student, you might want to summarize all that he's learned and convey that you believe in him. You might conclude, "It can be a process to get the accommodations in place, but it will help you to learn in the way that works best for you. Now you have the tools and resources you need to be your own advocate which will help you to take charge of your life. You've come a long way, and if you continue to self-advocate, I know that you will be able to achieve your dreams!"