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The Importance of Self-Advocacy

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

You might see that many therapists prioritize teaching self-advocacy. What does that mean exactly?

“Self-advocacy is an individual’s ability to effectively communicate, convey, negotiate, or assert his or her own interests, desires, needs and rights.” (VanReusen et al., 1994).

Okay, so what does that actually look like?

A common misconception is that verbal speech is required to have this skill. But the truth is, we can advocate our interests, desires, needs and rights in a variety of ways! Spoken word, speech-generating device, American Sign Language, gestures, nodding or shaking our head, picture communication systems, vocalizations, facial expressions, or other gestures are all forms of communication. Here are a few examples:

  • You offer a toy to a kid and they push it away.

  • A peer begins talking about a movie you enjoy, and your child squeals with delight!

  • Someone cuts in front of you in line and you say “I was here first.”

  • There’s a loud sound and your client furrows their brows and winces their face.

  • You offer two choices of a shirt to wear, and your child chooses a shirt.

  • A family member asks to give your child a hug and they hide behind your leg.

  • A therapist begins reading a book and the client says “all done” with their speech-generating device.

  • Your child curls up in your lap and holds your hand.

Each of these actions has a purpose and a message behind it. It is important we recognize and validate all forms of communication.

How do we validate it? By modeling their message back to them, without expecting a response in return. For example, if a child pushes a toy away, you can model “No thanks,” or “I don’t want it” and remove the toy. Now they know you understand what they are communicating, and you are a trusted communication partner.

Self-advocacy is an important skill for everyone to learn, especially individuals with disabilities. Unfortunately, statistics show that individuals with disabilities are more likely to experience abuse and less likely to report it. Regardless of age and abilities, we as parents and professionals can adapt our teachings to promote self-advocacy, safe boundaries, and encourage self-expression.

How will you help others advocate for themselves?

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