5 Ways to Be a Better Advocate for Students with Disabilities

Be a Better Advocate: 5 Ways a Campus Can Support Students with Disabilities

As an administrator or campus leader, it’s critical to advocate for students with disabilities. We all have the capacity to be better, do better, and inspire better, keeping in mind that small things can have a big impact. Reflect on your current advocacy practices. Do you need to rethink how you advocate for students with special needs? To make it easier as an educator, target and adopt some of these best practices, so you can become a better ally to students with disabilities.

What Does the Law Say?

ADA. ESSA. NCLB. IDEA. When it comes to the legal framework that guides teachers and administrators who support students with disabilities, there is no shortage of policies and precedences. While sitting down with case law and federal policy guides may be some folks’ idea of a great night in, most of us have more pressing things to do. 

The long and short of it is this: the laws related to special education seek to serve an educational benefit to students with disabilities in the least restrictive setting and in a way that eliminates discrimination and reduces the impact of a disability on a student’s learning. The main goal of current policies on disabilities in education is to provide equal opportunity, promote full participation, and facilitate access to postsecondary outcomes, like employment, independent living, and continuing education. 

While this all sounds pretty cut and dry, the implication for school campuses would be that it requires constant evaluation and continuous adjustments to ensure access for every child with a disability in a way that preserves their rights and meets a school’s legal obligations. 

What Does Being an Advocate Look Like?

When it comes to supporting students with disabilities, advocacy can look like a lot of different things. First and foremost, advocacy is standing up and speaking up for others to promote or defend their rights, needs, and best interests.

Oftentimes, when you see advocacy in action, it looks like courage in the face of overwhelming odds. That’s the made-for-TV movie version of advocacy. In the real world, advocacy is sometimes in the smallest of things, and it usually comes without any dramatic music in the background or fanfare. 

How to Be a Better Advocate in Schools

There are a few best practices as an educator to become an ally to students with disabilities. Finding ways to be a better advocate for students with disabilities doesn’t need to be a personal crusade, but it should be something you keep at the forefront of your mind. 

As you look over this list, pick one or two that speak to you as personal goals. Consider how you can adopt these strategies or mindsets to make an impact on the lives of students with disabilities on your campus or in your classroom. Then, bookmark this article and revisit it at the end of this term, at the end of the year, or anytime you want to reflect on your personal practices and educational intentions.

  1. Have High Expectations for Students with Disabilities 

In order to be a better advocate, start by assessing your expectations. Unseen to most, people sometimes tend to lower expectations for students with disabilities. It could be that thinking they lack the skills or ability to participate or be successful clouds daily interactions. The lowering of expectations can come slowly and go unnoticed, but the impact is profound. It can send the message to a student that they are incapable, unworthy, or unseen. 

Students with disabilities can learn, deserve access to rigorous instruction, and are entitled access to the curriculum. If you look at what students with disabilities are doing in the classroom, and it feels markedly less than other students, consider how you can raise your expectations and those of the people around you. This should include an increase in learning opportunities for students, more challenging academics in the classroom, and seeking professional development for staff so they can implement targeted interventions that encourage success. Special education is a set of services provided to close gaps, not widen them. Examine the overt and implied expectations for students with disabilities in your class or on your campus. 

  1. Listen More

We’re all in a rush. Working in education requires you to fill 20 different roles for an ever-increasing roster of students with fewer and fewer resources and in the same 24 hours. It can feel like there’s never enough time. In order to be a better advocate, it’s essential to listen. If you cannot listen more, then at least listen better. 

Make the most of your time by letting coworkers know you only have a few minutes, what they are saying is important, so can they tell you exactly what they need. Sometimes people can get caught up in telling the story (and if you work in education, you know there’s always a story). Sometimes people are looking to complain. Sometimes people come with problems and no solutions. When you start to phrase your listening as ‘I hear you, this is important, what do you need”, it forces the other person to come up with some solutions on their own. 

  1. Educate Yourself on Disabilities

To be a good advocate, you have to know about disabilities and disability rights. Learning about disabilities and how they impact students in the classroom as well as going out of your way to know how a disability impacts specific students on your campus goes a long way. You can’t know everyone, but as an administrator, there are overarching program details, staffing information, and student bios you should be familiar with.

To best support teachers, look for professional development opportunities that support disability awareness as well as effective instructional practices that specifically support students with disabilities. Prioritizing staff training and being proactive about including paraprofessionals and support staff can make your entire team better able to advocate and support students with disabilities. Make it a point to educate yourself and find ways to educate your team too.

  1. Adjust Your Language

Part of advocating for students with special needs is rethinking the language you use. That means person-first language and dropping the ‘bless their hearts’. I teach in the south, so the last one may be location specific. In your region, it may be using the word ‘baby’ or ‘sweet baby’. There are no babies in your classroom. This language poses a practice of infantilizing students with disabilities. Despite developmental ages that may not match chronological ages, 17-year-olds with Down syndrome are grown. They aren’t babies. 

It sounds like semantics, but the practice of infantilizing students with language feeds into an underlying implication in which a student can internalize that they are incapable, not responsible, or dependent on others. It also feeds into a mindset of lowering expectations and satisfaction with lower outcomes. 

Another way to adjust what you say is to use person-first language. Wheelchair kid, the one with autism, or blind girl are all labels or disability-first ways of speaking. Person-first language puts the person at the front of any description and their disability second. Student with autism or the kid in a wheelchair is preferred. Consider the impacts of your language and choose better words.

  1. Promote Inclusion

Inclusion is more than advocating for students to be educated alongside their non-disabled peers. While critically important and a major tenant in federal law, most of us at a campus level already do our best to consider the least restrictive setting and promote more inclusive student placement. 

As our students access the school environment, interact with non-disabled peers, and work in the general education setting, part of promoting inclusion for students with disabilities is to better educate everyone else. General education teachers may need extra support on how to work with students who have differing abilities and needs. Students may need guidance on being accepting of students with disabilities and interacting with peers who may be in wheelchairs, use communication devices, or who rock and wiggle their fingers a lot.

Removing the stigma associated with certain disabilities and supporting students and staff to be more accepting helps to promote inclusion in a way that shifts the onus. Students with disabilities are equal members of the school community and should be included to the maximum extent possible. 

Final Thoughts on Advocacy

Students with disabilities are first and foremost people. As administrators or campus leaders, we set the tone for our entire campus and have the capacity to inspire better advocacy from others. When we have high expectations, listen more, educate ourselves and others, adjust our language, and promote inclusion, we become better advocates. We also deliver on our promise to support all students and help them thrive.

About the Author: Ayo Jones is an experienced special education teacher, successful instructional coach, and charismatic professional speaker. Driven by her love for all things special education, Ayo provides educators teaching students with significant disabilities exactly what they need to survive and thrive. In her over 15 years in education, she has coached hundreds of teachers, trained thousands of educational professionals, and developed curriculum for tens of thousands of students with disabilities. You can learn more about Ayo on her website, Noodle Nook.

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