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Teaching Self Advocacy in the Special Ed Classroom

Teaching Self Advocacy in the Special Ed Classroom

Pat Hensley |

Many times I had students enter my classroom that had no idea what their disability was or what it meant. They felt that it meant they were stupid and couldn’t do anything. In order for my students to be self advocates for themselves, I felt this was so important for them to know so at the beginning of each year, I would explain the different disabilities. I would never single out a person and explain that person’s specific disability in class. I would name the disabilities and explain the legal definitions and I also talk about how this influences funding for the school and then tell the students they are labels.

From there we brainstorm about how a disability could affect their academic work. The students are amazed at how they are not alone with the problems and how similar these are among their classmates. Many of the students don’t like to verbalize the problems because they feel like they are the only one who has this but when we brainstorm about what problems could a student have, this takes the focus off of them personally and they are willing to participate. One time I filled up a whole whiteboard with the difficulties they faced in mainstreamed classes and even other special education classes. After looking at these, I have the students see that sometimes we accommodate for these difficulties in different ways for different students. Just like we go to the grocery store and buy different foods because we have different needs, a teacher teaches some students by giving them different assignments. This doesn’t mean one student is better than another.

Once they understand their differences, we begin to brainstorm appropriate ways to compensate and overcome the difficulties. Again I make the list impersonal so students are more willing to offer suggestions. Students suggest ways that have worked for them which helps others who had not thought of these solutions. I usually make a copy of these suggestions and post them in my room so students can review them when needed.

But just knowing ways does not mean the students and teachers act upon this so we discuss how to ask for these accommodations in the mainstream class. Many students don’t feel comfortable asking the general education teacher for this, so again we brainstorm ways to do this. They usually mention the IEP meeting, asking parents to contact the teacher, having the special education teacher contact the general education teacher but my main goal is to teach the students to advocate for themselves.

We begin by listing what the student could say to the general education teacher and then really work on how to say it. This is very important because my students don’t perceive their tone of voice or body language as a possible problem. I usually have my students role play this and we videotape it so we can review and analyze. This really shows the students how they look which usually involves a strained or aggressive voice, hunched shoulders, no eye contact, and folded arms which the teacher could perceive as indifference or defiance. So we work on these behaviors and retape the scene. It is amazing what a difference it makes to change the tone of voice and body language.

Here is a big step: I ask the students to list one teacher they would like to try this with the next day and what accommodation they may ask for. They are usually reluctant to try and I explain to them that there is a possibility they won’t be successful but it is important not to get angry and to act appropriate. If they are not successful, we will rethink this and try another strategy. After I get the names of teachers, I usually try to give them a heads up and ask them to please listen to the student and give me feedback about how the conversation went. This helps me when I review the situation with the student on how the teacher perceived the conversation. By talking to the teacher ahead of time, they don’t feel threatened that I am teaming up with the student against them and helps smooth the way especially when I explain that I’m teaching the student to be a self advocate.

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