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Instruction in Self-Advocacy

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA, 2014) is a legislative mandate focused on improving the employment outcomes of secondary students with disabilities. WIOA requires that funding from the State/Federal Vocational Rehabilitation System be used to ensure that state vocational rehabilitation agencies (e.g., Illinois Department of Human Services [IDHS]) in collaboration with schools provide pre-employment transition services (pre-ETS) to all students with disabilities who qualify, or could potentially qualify, for vocational rehabilitation services. Under WIOA, teachers and vocational rehabilitation counselors are required to engage students in five required pre-ETS: (a) job exploration counseling, (b) work-based learning experiences, (c) counseling on opportunities for enrollment in comprehensive transition or postsecondary educational programs, (d) workplace readiness training to develop social skills and independent living, and (e) instruction in self-advocacy. This research brief will focus on instruction in self-advocacy.

What is Instruction in Self-Advocacy?

Self-advocacy is defined as the ability to understand and communicate one’s needs, interests, and views to others in an effective manner.  It also involves the ability to make informed decisions. Students learn to become self-advocates by acquiring self-advocacy skills in four critical areas: (a) knowledge of self, (b) knowledge of rights, (c) communication, and (d) leadership (Test et al., 2005). The language used to discuss self-advocacy is sometimes synonymous with the term self-determination: a set of behaviors an individual engages in to make vital changes within their life (Burke et al., 2020; Test et al., 2005). The table below provides a list of sample self-advocacy skills.

Sample Self-Advocacy Skills
Knowledge of SelfKnowledge of RightsCommunicationLeadership
§  Strengths
§  Preferences
§  Goals
§  Dreams
§  Interests
§  Support needs
§  Characteristics of one’s disability
§  Responsibilities
§  Personal rights
§  Community rights
§  Consumer rights
§  Steps to redress violations
§  Steps to advocate for change
§  Knowledge of resources
§  Assertiveness
§  Negotiation
§  Articulation
§  Body language
§  Use of assistive technology
§  Listening
§  Persuasion
§  Compromise
§  Knowledge of group’s rights
§  Advocating for others or causes
§  Political action
§  Team dynamics and roles
§  Knowledge of resources

 Note. Table based on Test et al. (2005).

Research on Self-Advocacy

When students with disabilities develop self-advocacy and self-determination during high school, they are more likely to experience education, employment, and independent living success after high school (Mazzotti et al., 2021). Research promoting self-advocacy skills has also been associated with other outcomes, such as students’ (a) knowledge of rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (Wood et al., 2010); (b) participation within their Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings (Test et al., 2005); and (c) development of disability self-awareness (Mazzotti, et al., 2018). In addition to these positive outcomes, instruction in self-advocacy is rated by educators as one of the most important pre-ETS in the transition to work for students with disabilities (Carter et al., 2020). Instruction in self-advocacy can be accomplished by providing frequent opportunities for students to practice skills that will make them self-advocates (e.g., providing opportunities for them to make choices; Abery & Karapetvan). By instructing students to become self-advocates, educators foster independence and decrease the need for students to depend on others. For students with more extensive support needs, educators should also systematically foster opportunities for students to communicate needs and wants across modalities (e.g., verbal and nonverbal language; Morningstar, 2017). Educators may also consider using facilitated methods of instruction when providing self-advocacy instruction, such as person-centered planning (e.g., goal setting) or direct instruction (e.g., the use of curricula that promote self-advocacy; Test et al., 2005).

Guidelines for Practice

To teach self-advocacy and self-determination skills to students with disabilities, educators need to know practices that promote self-advocacy and self-determination and methods for incorporating them into daily instruction (Carter et al., 2020; Rowe et al., 2015). For example, teachers should consider using free curricula, supported by research, to teach self-advocacy and self-determination to students with disabilities (e.g., Whose Future Is It Anyway?; NTACT, 2021). Practitioners can also embed self-advocacy and self-determination instruction into (a) IEP and transition planning processes, (b) classroom activities and assessments requiring students to advocate for IEP accommodations, and (c) classroom instruction aligned with state standards (Carter et al., 2020; Rowe et al., 2015; Test et al., 2005). It is also critical educators consider and understand how a student’s culture and family may impact the student’s self-advocacy and self-determination (Suk et al., 2020).

Additional Resources

Abery, H. B., & Karapetyan, L. (2018). Supporting the self-determination of students with special education need in the inclusive classroom. In Ticha, R., Abery, H. B., Johnstone, C., Poghosyan, A., Hunt, F. P. (Eds.), Inclusive Education Strategies: A Textbook (pp. 1-249). Regents of the University of Minnesota. 

Burke, K. M., Raley, S. K., Shogren, K. A., Hagiwara, M., Mumbardó-Adam, C., Uyanik, H., & Behrens, S. (2020). A meta-analysis of interventions to promote self-determination for students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 41(3), 176-188.  

Carter, E. W., Awsumb, J. M., Schutz, M. A., & McMillan, E. D. (2020). Preparing your for the  world of work: Educator perspectives on pre-employment transition services. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 00(0), 1-13.

Mazzotti, V. L., Rowe, D. A., Kwiatek, S., Voggt, A., Chang, W. H., Fowler, C. H., Poppen, M., Sinclair, J., & Test, D. W. (2021). Secondary transition predictors of postschool success: An update to the research base. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 44(1), 47-64.

Mazzotti, L. V., Rowe, A. D., Wall, C. J., Bradley, E. K. (2018). Increasing self-advocacy for secondary students with disabilities: Evaluating effects of ME! INCLUSION, 6(3), 194-207.

Morningstar, M. (2017). Transition to adulthood for youth with severe and multiple disabilities In Orelove, P. F., Sobsey, D., & Gilles, L. D. (Eds.), Educating Students with Severe and Multiple Disabilities (pp. 1-524). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.  

National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (2021). Effective practices and predictors. 

Rowe, D. A., Mazzotti, V. L., & Sinclair, J. (2015). Strategies for teaching self-determination skills in conjunction with the Common Core. Intervention in School and Clinic, 50(3), 131-141. 

Suk, A. L., Sinclair, T. E., Osmani, K. J., & Williams-Diehm, K. (2020).  Transition planning: Keeping cultural competence in mind.  Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 43(2), 122-127.

Test, D. W., Fowler, C. H., Wood, W. M., Brewer, D. M., & Eddy, S. (2005). A conceptual framework of self-advocacy for students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 26(1), 43–54.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, Pub. L. 113-128, STAT, 1634.

Wood, C. L., Kelley, K. R., Test, D. W., & Fowler, C. H. (2010). Comparing audio-supported text and explicit instruction on students’ knowledge of accommodations, rights, and responsibilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 33(2), 115–124.