One of the most effective ways to advocate for students with disabilities is to teach them about their disabilities. The more they understand about their conditions, the better they will be able to articulate their needs to others. This won’t be appropriate or even possible for all students with disabilities. Some students with severe developmental delays will need dedicated voices to advocate for them. However, many students with learning disabilities can become their own informed advocates. Teachers and parents can guide the development of this self-awareness.
To the greatest extent possible, students with learning disabilities should have a functional understanding of their specific educational needs. This can begin through instruction about learning disabilities in general. Relative maturity might dictate when and how to begin this instruction. The IEP team can determine the most effective course. A unit about learning disabilities might become a cross-curricular project for students in the elementary grades, as an entire class might benefit from this. For older students, some form of independent discovery learning might be best. As a concept of learning disabilities becomes clear, students can research their specific conditions under the tutelage of special education teachers.
Any study of learning disabilities should include an examination of the strategies commonly used as interventions. Through reading modules selected by their special education teachers or through guided research, students can explore the rationale behind the specific accommodations or modifications they use as part of their IEPs. Some students might be able to evaluate the effectiveness of specific strategies with regards to their learning. They can become valuable contributors to their IEPs as they rate what strategies work best for them.
Fully understanding their IEPs should come next. Teachers and parents might ask young students if they understand why they have IEPs or what the IEPs actually do. Some students unfortunately make it to high school without a clear idea of why they receive extra support. They might not know what support is available to them. Team members should explain IEPs in clear language. They should introduce them to students as tools necessary to help students with disabilities. Crucially, team members shouldn’t present IEPs as tickets to doing easier work. IEPs should be thought of as toolkits and guidebooks, not crutches or passes.
Whenever appropriate, students of transition age should be involved in the creation of their IEPs. They should attend IEP meetings and they shouldn’t leave these meetings without some grasp of what the team has designed, along with why. Special education teachers should ensure that students are aware of IEP goals and objectives. Working towards these goals and objectives should be a tangible component of instruction. Students can be part of their own progress monitoring, even graphing their results per marking period. To the end of self-advocacy, they should know each accommodation and modification available to them. These should be items they understand well enough to request as needed.
Teaching older students about their disabilities and about their IEPs can be planned in the transition section of each IEP. The complexity of this instruction can increase from term to term. Transition goals can include students being able to describe their disabilities and being able to explain why they need particular accommodations or modifications. Eventually, services can include instruction about what protections and rights they have via the law in school and beyond. They can learn about the ADA and about services in their communities. Teams can make highly specific plans that connect disability awareness with transition planning. Activities supporting such planning can include writing college application essays about overcoming their disabilities or contacting college offices of disabilities regarding available services. Entire senior projects can be built around such activities.
Whatever the means, students with learning disabilities need to understand their disabilities as well as what support they need. With a working knowledge of each, these students can have the tools they need to advocate for themselves. This is one of the most important skill sets students with learning disabilities can carry into their adult lives.
Written by Jeff Hartman