I have a short list of things I have learned as I taught the skills listed in my first self-advocacy piece. I know all students and classes are different, but if you have students similar to mine, these tips may be helpful when broaching the topic of having a disability.
1. Be direct/honest
I get right to the point and talk very matter-of-factly when talking about disabilities and weaknesses. No need to make a big deal out of this discussion or to “beat around the bush.” Just get to the point explain it like you explain anything else. If you don’t overreact to this conversation, your students will be less likely to overreact when told they have a disability.
2. Don’t talk down to students
Two of my students were up in arms yesterday after they thought a teacher was talking down to them. I really don’t know what specifics to tell you about how to avoid talking down to students. In fact, when my students were telling me what had happened, I got nervous and asked if I ever talk to them in a way that makes them upset. Thankfully, they said no. The only thing I can suggest is know your students well and talk to them on a level that is developmentally appropriate. Focusing on things they cannot do because of a disability and using materials or language that is developmentally below your students are just two things my students have referenced as ways things that make them feel inferior when talking about disabilities.
3. Give hope
When talking about disabilities, especially if you are being direct and honest about disabilities, it can be easy for students to leave the conversation with a sense of despair. For students in an occupational diploma track, one of the big questions I get asked is, “Will I be able to go to [insert student’s favorite four year college] after I graduate?” When students are told that very few colleges accept students with occupational diplomas, they can get upset. This reality and others related to having a disability can be upsetting.
I attempt to give students hope each time we talk about disabilities. For example, this week my students asked if they would be able to go to Clemson University when they graduated. I had to tell them that they could not be accepted like any other student, but I told them about the ClemsonLIFE program for students with intellectual disabilities and the possibility of them attending. The students got very excited and decided they wanted to visit the program. They are now planning their own field trip to tour Clemson and ask questions of the students in the program. A topic that could have been depressing—I won’t be able to be accepted as a regular student at a four year college—turned into a very exciting opportunity for the students.
Self-advocacy skills are something I believe should be taught to students. Teachers may face heavy opposition from students when talking about disabilities, especially if you teach older students. If you don’t believe that these skills are necessary for students to succeed, you may be tempted to quit teaching them. However, self-advocacy skills will affect nearly every area of life after high school for students with disabilities. College classes, job interviews, living with a roommate, and dozens of other situations require a person to be a self-advocate. Students with disabilities will need explicit instruction in self-advocacy to be successful in these situations.