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Self-advocacy: Improve your life by speaking up

August 26, 2021 - 16 min read


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What is self-advocacy?

What are the critical elements of self-advocacy?

How to communicate your needs

7 benefits of self-advocacy

Resources to learn self-advocacy

Believe in yourself

What is self-advocacy?

Self-advocacy is the ability to speak up on your behalf effectively. You might do this to bring about positive results in any of the various contexts in which you interact — whether at work, in organizations, school, community, or family.

If there are decisions being made on your behalf or conditions that affect your well-being, it’s your right to speak up powerfully about them. You have the right to assert your own best interests.

However, for one reason or another, many of us don’t feel comfortable advocating for ourselves. Self-advocacy is a learned behavior, but not everyone has seen it modeled or had the opportunity to practice it.  Sometimes, our past experiences stifle our ability to speak up or our belief that our needs are valid and worth fighting for.

Over time, you can become more skilled in speaking up for yourself in an empowered way.

What are the critical elements of self-advocacy?

As you may imagine, self-advocacy will look different from person to person and from situation to situation. While it is often associated with people who have particular conditions or disabilities, self-advocacy is something that everyone can learn, practice, and encourage in others.

Most self-advocacy groups are focused on teaching young adults, particularly those with autism and intellectual disabilities, how to speak up and request accommodations that they are entitled to by law. Up through postsecondary education, these programs are supported by individualized education programs (IEPs).

However, understanding and requesting these accommodations in adult life is rarely so straightforward. Most workplaces don't include self-advocacy groups. Further complicating the matter, many employers aren't aware of disability rights or how to accommodate learning disabilities at work. Truth be told, after high school, these conversations — and the resulting awareness — often falls by the wayside.

That's why teaching self-advocacy skills becomes even more important. The value of self-determination skills isn't limited to special education. It's a conversation that every person benefits from. Learning to self-advocate improves self-esteem, opens the door for creative problem solving, and creates a deeper sense of belonging.


Understanding yourself, your values, and your needs

Self-advocacy requires that you first understand yourself (your values, your needs, and your rights) in the context in which you operate. It requires that you are aware of the support that you need and the resources that are available.

Self-advocacy also requires the ability to communicate your value, your needs, and your human rights in a way that will be understood and offer you the greatest return on the ask.

To understand who you are, ask the following questions:

  • What are my values?
  • What matters to me most and why?
  • What are my particular needs? What do I need to accomplish my tasks or fulfill my responsibilities? What do I need to feel respected and to maintain my emotional, physical, and financial well-being?
  • What are my strengths and growth areas?

Understanding your context

Second, you need to understand yourself in the context of your role within the larger group. This means having a good understanding of the organization’s values, rules, rights, and resources. For instance, look at your organization’s mission and your team’s role in fulfilling that mission.

Ask yourself:

How do I serve the team and thereby serve the organization as a whole?

What are my responsibilities to the organization, and what are the organization’s responsibilities to me?

Do our values and talents match?

Can I serve the organization?

Does my work for the organization benefit me? 

Be realistic. One workplace, one organization, may not fill all the buckets you need to fulfill you in all ways.

It is an excellent awareness to have as you set expectations for which needs and desires this part of your life serves. At the very least, you’ll want to be aware of the rules governing your role, workplace, and/or situation. 

Also, familiarize yourself with the resources allocated to support you within and outside of the organization. Are there offices in place to assist you as an employee, a person who needs accommodation, etc.?

Cultivate support 

Often, receiving the accommodations required by law requires self-advocacy. Negotiating a pay raise and setting boundaries to a 24/7 open line of communication when working on a global team requires self-advocacy. Speaking up for your civil rights as a person from an underrepresented background requires it as well.

Whether or not it seems fair, all of these instances illustrate how often improving an aspect of your life requires you to speak up and make your case. While there are legal and institutional structures designed to support you, you have agency and responsibility to speak for the care and treatment you deserve. Building and seeking help from a support system when it matters is essential.

Here are 4 steps you can take to build up a support system:

  1. Develop a robust and direct line of communication with your manager. Your manager is in the best position to advocate on your behalf. They know both you and the organization. Ideally, that person will be your best ally in the workplace, understanding your needs and the resources available at the organization and mentoring you along the way.
  2. Join — and lead — organizations that are there to support you and others, within and outside of your organization. Connect with like and unlike individuals who are united in building visibility, programming, and policies to support people in your organization. There is power in multiple voices and perspectives united as one. There is also a wealth of experiences from which to learn. 
  3. Be an ally and advocate for others. Speaking up for others is often less angst-inducing than speaking up for ourselves. Practice speaking up on behalf of others, and you’ll gain more confidence to do so for yourself. The people who you advocated for in the past may also become your future allies.
  4. Continue developing yourself, building relationships with others (yes, the oft-maligned "networking"), and being aware of opportunities and resources within your field inside and outside your present organization. There is a power in knowing that you have alternatives. Sometimes, those alternatives may exist outside of the organization that is no longer serving your personal and professional needs.


How to communicate your needs 

Organizations and their leaders should comply with the law and act ethically and morally.

Many conflicts, however, don't fall into the obvious category of someone knowingly skirting the law or trying to deny others. And, there can be fairly different interpretations of what is required. 

Self-advocacy can be hard if you're feeling frustrated and deliberately ignored. When you don't feel under attack, you can find strength and advocate for yourself more effectively. Starting with an assumption of good intent gives you and the other party an opportunity to find common ground.

No one wants to hear a continual list of complaints and how the organization is not doing its job. If the leadership begins to feel under attack, they may choose to frame your request as “your problem.” Rather than hear your words, they will actively tune them out.

For effective self-advocacy, it is your responsibility to do the work of presenting your issue in a clear and compelling way that others will see as an issue worth solving — and moreover, a strong case for doing so. With the right intentions, they will be grateful to hear a solution that takes their needs into account as well. 

When the time comes to advocate for yourself and others, make sure to take the following steps: prepare, consult, draft, and state your case.

    1. To prepare, start by documenting your concerns in detail. When does it happen? What happens? Which players are involved? What is the negative consequence on you and others?
    2. Do your research. Which laws govern the issue on a federal, state, and local level? What do the governing rules of your organization state about the situation you are experiencing? Is there a group that is assigned to enforce the laws? Is there an ombuds office to consult on the issue you are experiencing and help you craft the needed communication? How have other organizations addressed similar issues? Do the research, and use your resources!
    3. Consult your support network for their feedback and input. Have others experienced the situation you have experienced? What were their lessons? Has research been conducted on the topic with which you are addressing? What were the findings and outcomes? Knowledge is power. Understand your issue in the broader context to make your particular case as compelling as can be from the start.
    4. Begin to draft (and redraft, if necessary) a solution. Write out the following in detail:

      What is the issue?

      What is the negative impact on you and your team, and ultimately the organization?

      What is the desired resolution?

      How can it be a win not only for yourself but for others involved?

      What is your best alternative?

      What are your non-negotiables?

    5. When you feel like you’ve considered all possible angles, reach out to your established and trusted network of experts. Get their feedback and input. 
    6. Now you are ready to state your case with clarity and confidence. As you approach the person, remember to use open-ended questions to invite the person into a conversation. Perhaps that there is another alternative that you are not seeing. However, be clear going into the conversation what you are willing to compromise on, and what you are not — and why. 

Sometimes, rules are not followed. In those times, knowing your rights and having alternate areas of influence, and ideally income streams, matter. They allow you greater freedom to choose and to have the power to speak up without fear of retribution. 


7 benefits of self-advocacy

Self-advocacy is an important skill to master, and not just for success at work. Practicing speaking up for yourself and others creates several important benefits:

  1. You empower yourself and others by practicing and honing self-advocacy skills. In doing so, you build a psychologically safe and inclusive environment where other people are more apt to share their ideas and flourish.
  2. You take control of your own life. You set the boundaries and make choices based on your values. You understand what matters most to you and why. 
  3. With your increased self-awareness, understanding of the needs of others, and knowledge of governing principles, you become better at decision making.
  4. You use open-ended questions to engage in conversations. You become better able to hear the perspectives of others that you hadn’t previously considered.
  5. You become an effective problem solver. You know how to research the problem at hand and how to consider multiple perspectives. You know that to get to what you want, you have to present a solution in a way that is compelling to yourself and others.
  6. You develop yourself continually and are an active member of organizations that impact governing policies that matter to you and the larger group.
  7. You speak up for yourself and others. It’s a continual win-win!

Resources to learn self-advocacy

The following resources are helpful in further learning aspects of self-advocacy:

Increase your self-awareness

Read the following article on the importance and benefits of self-awareness in all aspects of your life from Exercises to enhance your self-awareness are included.

Identify your values

Navigate your response to the world with a clear understanding of what matters to you most and why. This exercise is deceptively simple and so impactful. 

Know your strengths

Collect the feedback of family and friends on what they consider to be your top strengths. Reflect on their responses and what you think to be your top strengths.  How have those strengths served you in the past and the present? How may they aid you in the future?

Develop a growth mindset

Having a growth mindset means that you believe in continual development and growth. Check out this article from Psychology Today to learn how you can further develop your growth mindset.   

Take on a different perspective

Fred Kofman, author of Conscious Business, shares the importance of considering someone else’s perspective in a difficult conversation and equates it to a dance in the following video.

Believe in yourself

Self-advocacy requires that you know yourself, what matters most to you and why. With that clarity, the boundaries you maintain act as safety rails that guide you and the people around you. Be an ally to others, and in turn, people will be allies to you. Experience the power of speaking up for others and develop the confidence to do so for yourself. Have the courage to take on the challenge, knowing that you have prepared and allies are all around. 

As a final note, always keep in mind that no one road is the only path to success. Knowing that you have alternatives gives you greater power and the freedom to choose how you will approach the situation — without fear of losing a privileged position. Believe in yourself and your ability to advocate for yourself and others. Your generous and courageous act begets another!

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Published August 26, 2021

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