Teaching Your Child about Self-Advocacy
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At school this third grader advocates for herself by letting her teachers know that she needs extra light in order to see her reading material. She also keeps a notebook, which she can use as a reading stand.
The morning's task for Kassandra's third-grade class was to pick one of the pictures tacked up on the bulletin board that showed several scenes of different Central American communities. Then the students were to answer a series of questions about their chosen scene that the teacher had written on the whiteboard. Kassandra had forgotten her monocular and didn't want to call attention to herself by getting up and moving closer to the bulletin board and whiteboard. She hated the idea of her classmates staring at her. And, she was afraid that if she explained her predicament to the teacher, she would be in trouble for forgetting her monocular. So she sat at her desk and wrote what she hoped was the correct information.
Kassandra is not unlike many children with visual impairments: She doesn't want to be different, and she doesn't want to call attention to herself. So rather than speaking up and asking for access to the information on the bulletin board and whiteboard—that is, advocating for herself—she misses out on something. Your child may also be missing opportunities to let others know what she needs to learn best.
When and How to Teach Self-Advocacy
All of us need to learn to communicate what is important to us, and grade school is a good time to start helping your child become comfortable with speaking up for herself. This skill is often more difficult to acquire later on, during the self-conscious preteen and teenage years. As early as kindergarten or first grade, you can guide your child to express her needs and preferences for herself as you go about your everyday activities. For example, at a restaurant, rather than reading the menu to her, wait until she asks you what the choices are. When you go to the store together, have her ask the clerk where to find her favorite breakfast cereal. Then give her feedback on her interactions: Did she speak up so the clerk could hear her, look at the clerk as she talked, and accurately receive the information the clerk gave her?
In other situations, let her come up with her own suggestions. For example, if you're at the circus and you're aware that she can't see what the acrobats are doing, ask her what she thinks the two of you can do. She might tell you that you can move up closer or that she can use her monocular. If not, you can give her the two choices and ask her to pick the one she prefers. These types of opportunities will allow her to begin to practice self-advocacy while you're there to support her.
Try to anticipate the kinds of situations in which she'll need to advocate for her own needs and role play these with her. If she is joining a Brownie troop, for example, help her practice asking the leader if she can sit up close enough to see the sewing demonstration or if she can try the activity together with the leader because she can't see the demonstration. Role-play scenarios that may come up at school, such as not being able to see the whiteboard, asking the cafeteria worker what choices are available for lunch, or asking a classmate to help find her backpack because it has been moved.
Part of what your child needs to learn about advocating for herself is what information to share about her visual impairment. Often when she asks a stranger or a casual acquaintance for information or assistance, that person may not understand why she needs help. In such instances, it's important for her to be able to explain why she needs assistance. In the grocery store she might say, "I can't see the sign. Can you tell me where the cookies are?" Or in the schoolyard with a classmate she might say, "Someone moved my backpack and I can't see where it is now. It's blue and purple and has a bell on the zipper. Can you help me find it?"
In addition to giving your child opportunities to communicate and obtain what she needs, it is helpful for you to explain to her the importance of asserting what matters to her throughout her life. By expressing your own concerns and preferences in her presence and discussing this behavior with her, you can help her develop her own skills and behaviors for obtaining what she wants or needs. The chance to spend time with role models can be another useful support for your child. By talking to older children or adults who have visual impairments, she can discover how they advocate for themselves and what they tell others about their visual impairments.