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The Importance of Self-Advocacy

When you are diagnosed with a disability, you might at first feel embarrassed. Or, you might feel like you have to hide that disability – that is how I felt at first. But, over time, I learned that it isn’t something to be embarrassed about or to hide. Instead, I’ve grown to realize that it is more important to confidently own my disability and educate others. Never is this more important than when it comes to my teachers and educators.

Originally, my parents were the ones to talk to my teachers and explain my Tourette Syndrome and my co-occurring conditions. They would talk for me when I was too scared to talk about my Tourette Syndrome because I did not have the right words or the confidence to speak up. Eventually, they taught me to educate my teachers. I wanted to have my own voice in talking about my Tourette Syndrome because it helped me gain confidence as I explained it.

When I was in 7th grade, I was having an extreme vocal tic; my music teacher said to the class that whoever was making the noises needed to stop. Can you imagine how mortifying that was? I went up to her after class and explained that I have Tourette Syndrome, which means that I have involuntary motor and vocal tics that I cannot control or stop. This was the first time that I had advocated for myself about my Tourette Syndrome, and it felt great.

Unfortunately, the conversation doesn’t always go as well as that one did, and sometimes I need to explain my Tourette Syndrome more than once to the same person. I have had teachers make crude “jokes” that make fun of my disability. A few years ago, my language teacher told me that I should use my Tourette to curse out the principal about something with which she herself was frustrated. She told me that if I do it, I won’t get in trouble because I can blame it on TS. This was extremely offensive, and I explained to her how Tourette is not an excuse to do actions that you would not do normally. After this incident, I realized that I needed to talk to all of my teachers at the beginning of the year about my Tourette. I understood, then, that I can’t assume that others know about my disability, even teachers. There is no one better than I to explain it to them and help them understand.

Here is my advice for when you are advocating for yourself at the beginning of the school year. It is important to set up meetings with your teachers to introduce yourself and talk about the upcoming year. These meetings will allow you to have a few moments with your educators to let them know of any conditions, questions, disabilities, or struggles that they should be aware of. As soon as I get my schedule, I send a friendly email to my teachers asking if we can set up time to prepare for the year. In this email, I tell my teachers that I have Tourette Syndrome, and what that means for my life academically.

After that initial meeting, you can’t stop advocating for yourself, and you can’t rely on your teachers to remember everything from the conversation. Throughout the year, continually ask to speak privately if you need anything and remember to raise your hand to ask questions in class. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, because it is likely that someone else has the same question and was too afraid to ask it. Another way to advocate for yourself is to ask the teacher for more time or explanations on assignments.

It is important to note that If your disability significantly impacts your life, then there is a good chance you might qualify for a 504 plan or an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). These plans could include accommodations that give you equal access to the academic environment. For example, can you imagine what it is like for me to tic while doing an English or Math test? Clearly, it interferes with my ability to read, analyze and calculate. Thank goodness I have extra time to account for this. Don’t understand how to complete some homework? Ask your teacher to explain. Knowing how to ask for help in and of itself is a really important skill to learn and hone. In my experience, asking for help helps me relax and feel less stressed about not knowing what to do. When I feel stressed, my mind thinks about not only the topic I’m  stressed about, but everything that is bothering me. This makes the stress worse, so practicing self-advocacy saves me time and calms my mind. It might be the same for you!

Advocating for yourself can be intimidating. You are really putting yourself out there!  But, it is an essential skill that will not only help you as you traverse through school, but will also help you as you grow and mature into a self-respecting and self-sufficient adult. These little bits of advice and ways to advocate were given to me by my parents and they really helped me build up confidence. I hope they are helpful to you, too, and allow you to become more confident in yourself.

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