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Against All Odds: Strategies for Successful Advocacy

By Sarah-Monique Williams, Psy.D.

I still remember clearly, at the age of eighteen, the day I was officially diagnosed with having a learning disability (a visual-motor processing integration difficulty). I jumped for joy! Why? Because I finally understood why I did things differently from others. Today my learning disability is an integral aspect of who I am. I now realize that my disability cannot be separated from the rest of me, and I recognize the strengths it gives me: creativity, determination, and a strong sense of self.

These significantly help me with my work as a clinical psychologist. Flexibility, originality, and resourcefulness help me adapt to the needs of each client; subsequently we both are able to discover ways in which to use skills through his/her individuality in order to problem-solve creatively. After I had just been accepted into my doctoral program, I had a conversation with my mother. She revealed to me that my fourth grade teacher had told her and my father that they should not expect much from me, and that in fact, I might not even make it through college. I came to the realization that all of the help my parents gave me with homework, in addition to the countless meetings they attended in order to fight for my proper education, was vitally important in getting me entrance into college.

Once there, I established an on-campus group for students with disabilities, providing support and advocacy assistance to its members. In graduate school, I created my own systems in order to have all my educational materials read to me and my papers transcribed. I came to realize how important it is for students with disabilities to recognize their own individuality and take responsibility for their advocacy.

For students with learning disabilities, here are some tips to help you become better advocates. Also, these guidelines can be extended to parents as foundational steps to help their child throughout the years; they can act as catalysts so that the student can become his/her own advocate. These tips have come from my own personal experience as well as from helping students with learning disabilities and their families. As a psychologist, I have worked with students from preschool through graduate school promoting the following strategies:

Understand Yourself, Your Disability and Your Rights

It is important for you to understand yourself, your disability, and your rights. It is equally important for parents to take an active role in that awareness – especially for younger children. In order to accomplish this, you must know your strengths and limitations. It is helpful to be open to explaining one’s disability to others and to know what you need to succeed. Be aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504. Know that your state and local laws can assist you with ensuring your rights.

Plan Ahead

Planning ahead is crucial when advocating for yourself. Be organized and keep good records – this greatly helps in the process. Know the services that your school and community provide. Request accommodations early from disability services and instructors; and find out about advocacy and legal resources, both on and off campus.

Give Up the Norm and Become Your Own Person

Consider that going through school (and life in general) with a learning disability is a very individual process. You may be treated differently by some of your teachers, supervisors, and colleagues. Certain tasks may take you longer to do. This does not mean, however, that you have to fit others people’s expectations. In other words: give up the norm and become your own person.

Finally, be sure to pace yourself. Give yourself breaks, get support from others, and choose your battles; never lose sight of your goals. I now realize that my strong advocacy skills kept the many and varied obstacles I faced from standing in my way of becoming a clinical psychologist.

Sarah-Monique Williams, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Chicago.