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By Cristina Stanger, Self-Advocacy Liaison, WRFN
*This article was originally published in the Family Pulse Newsletter May 2019*
Before I joined the WRFN team, I was a client. The Family Network encouraged and supported my self-advocacy efforts, as my drive to pursue this work started to grow. Self-advocacy is generally defined as speaking up for yourself, making your needs and preferences known, and finding your voice. My personal definition has become as follows: self-advocacy means becoming an active force in your own life to affect positive change. It is also important to recognize self-advocacy as a learned skill.
As I began my role as the WRFN Self-Advocacy Liaison, I imagined trying to teach my past-self the self-advocacy skills I now know. I started to reflect on the time when I acquired a diagnosis of exceptionality - I was struggling to understand who I was and sort out what my challenges were. It was during this reflection that I had a revelation: learning self-advocacy was not a linear process and required a ready and willing state-of-mind. Upon further thought, I concluded that there are other ‘selfs’ that help pave the way toward self-advocacy, to build that readiness. I generated the following list: self-worth, self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-expression, and self-confidence. It is my experience that these selfs build upon each other to create a scaffolding to support the platform from which one self-advocates. I will touch on each of these items in turn.
Self-worth means acknowledging your inherent value as a person. In order to ask for what you need, it is important that you feel you are worthy and that you deserve to have what you need to be your best self. From my perspective, believing that you matter is the cornerstone of any self-advocacy effort.
Self-awareness is knowing your needs, your values, your temperament, etc. This can take practice and improves over time as one gains life experience. Depending on one’s exceptionality, self-awareness may be an area of challenge where some guidance may be needed. In order to advocate for what you need or express what your preferences are, an understanding of what you need and value is key.
Self-acceptance involves the acceptance of both your unique strengths and limitations. If you are in denial of your limitations, how can you possibly ask for what you need to overcome them? It has been my observation that as you become more in tune with your areas of weakness, your strengths will start to resonate more as well. Self-advocacy can then unfold as you utilize your strengths to work through barriers.
Self-expression is a sense of your own personal style and an understanding of how you most effectively communicate. This too, comes with practise. And for some individuals who struggle to express themselves, it may require some creative solutions (eg. self-expression using a musical playlist, a collage of images, a scene from a movie to explain how they feel or what is important to them).
Self-confidence is trust in yourself and your abilities to engage with the world. If you are able to get to know your strengths, then you are more likely to have the seeds from which to grow self-confidence. Once you believe you have something to offer, you will be more likely to take action towards self-advocacy so that you have the support you need to give something back to the world around you.
I am acutely aware that these aspects of self are much easier to define than they are to acquire. I know from experience that progress can be slow and hard to measure. They can be especially challenging to build if past negative experiences or concurrent mental health issues have undermined one’s sense of self. Professional counselling supports have been immensely helpful to me in this regard. The stronger your ‘selfs’ are, the stronger your foundation for self-advocacy will be.
That said, one does not have to have all these forms of self completely in order before one can self-advocate - that would be unrealistic. If you think back to my definition of ‘becoming an active force in your own life’, then you can start and apply self-advocacy efforts to your day-to-day. As with any new skill, it is helpful to start simple and build upon small successes. So, in this way, self-advocacy successes can help boost the other selfs in the form of a positive feedback loop.
I’ve noticed that it can be challenging for parents to gradually transfer the task of advocacy for their child to that child as they mature. And of course, each individual is different, and will be able to handle different amounts and forms of advocacy. However, you can help lay the groundwork with the other ‘selfs’ so that when the time comes for an individual to advocate for themselves, the scaffolding is there. You can’t force someone to be more self-accepting, but you can demonstrate it by accepting the individual for who it is they are. You cannot make someone else more self-confident, but you can cultivate their confidence by supporting ways for them to positively engage with the world.
But I think the most powerful way to teach these things is to actively pursue them yourself, leading by example. All the ‘selfs’, including self-advocacy, can be practised by anyone, regardless of age or the presence of a diagnostic label. Every individual will be faced with times when they need to find their voice. So take a moment to assess your own understanding of self and ask, where do I want to go from here?
If you or your family members would like to discuss this, or any other topic, please reach out to Cristina through the Ask A Self-Advocate program (AASA). As with all WRFN programming, the AASA program is provided at no charge.