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6 Steps to Self-Advocacy in the Workplace

April is National Autism Awareness Month!

Students with disabilities today are in an age of inclusion. In a strong mainstream setting, students can benefit from IEP meetings, special education teachers, assistive technology, and a variety of services to meet their needs. While all of these services help students develop academic, social, and self-advocacy skills, even the best self-advocates can be left feeling alone without the support system they relied on since kindergarten. However, when these school accommodations end upon high school graduation, this can lead to one of the hardest transition times for a person with disabilities as they enter college and later the job market. Some colleges today offer great services; others can require jumping through hoops before receiving needed services. The same can go for the workplace- without the structure of IEPs, 504 plans, and special education, the only thing an individual can count on is his own advocacy skills.

When a young adult with Aspergers Syndrome experienced a struggle with this post-school transition at a new job, We're All Ears stepped in to help. The organization where he was now working claimed to be 'inclusive' (as many now do,) but he quickly realized that its definition of inclusion was to give him access to the organization, without the accommodations or understanding he needed. He found that the true definition of inclusion- feeling like a welcomed part of the community, with accommodations given to provide full access- was not one practiced at this particular organization.

After multiple misunderstandings in the workplace, this individual felt that he needed the support of someone who fully understood his disability and the principles of inclusion to stand by his side. We're All Ears offered our advocacy services and joined him for a meeting with his supervisor.

What is it like to work directly with supervisors, human resource departments, even a professional hired to work with individuals with disabilities, who don't have an understanding of the disability or of how to truly create an inclusive environment? The questions below provide insight into what conversations might look like and how to navigate such a meeting.

1. Hiring an Advocate

Workplace: Why are you here? What gives you the right as someone outside of our organization to sit in on this meeting?

Advocate: I am a disability advocate. I have personal and professional experience working with individuals with disabilities and knowledge of current research and trends. It is key for people with disabilities to feel like they have a support team, someone by their side. I am here to help create a safe space, one that facilitates ease of communication, and one in which the individual feels heard.

2. Training is Key

Workplace: Why doesn't the individual understand what's needed of him/her in our workplace?

Advocate: This individual needs to be taught what to do, particularly from someone who he/she trusts and who understands the disability. Because of his/her disability, training can require more repetition, and certainly more patience, than it would with the average employee. Having a mentor who can walk him/her through new or difficult tasks can be very helpful. Simply reprimanding the individual is unlikely to produce better results. It can also hurt his/her confidence levels and cause him/her to shut down. Keeping feedback and requests clear, concise and positive will go a long way.

3. Access, Not 'Equality'

Workplace: We are treating this individual like any other employee. Why is that wrong?

Advocate: While in some ways treating him/her like other employees may be very appropriate and beneficial, the true definition of inclusion does not mean treating everyone equally. It means providing all individuals access, which may mean providing specific accommodations (i.e. open captioning for individuals with hearing loss, ramps for individuals who use wheelchairs, or more frequent breaks for individuals with A.D.D.). By simply treating him/her the same as everyone else, you create a workplace of 'equality' so-to-speak, but not one of inclusion.

The image illustrates the difference between giving everyone equal 'accommodations' vs. providing true accommodations tailored to individuals' unique needs.

4. Actions Speak Louder than Words

Workplace: The fact that we offer an inclusion initiative is more than other organizations do.

Advocate: It is commendable that you have begun this initiative. It seems like you really want to create a diverse, inclusive environment. However, without proper training for the professionals working directly with the individual with disabilities, and furthermore without all of your employees being educated about this initiative, it has the potential to do more harm than good. Are you prepared to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities?

If you claim to offer an inclusive workplace, this does not mean the individual with disabilities conforms to your current environment. What adaptations and accommodations are you willing to make/provide based on his/her specific needs? True inclusion is not simply about having individuals with disabilities in your workplace; it is about including them as full members of your workplace community with complete access based on their needs.

5. When you meet one person with Aspergers, you've met one person with Aspergers.

Workplace: Why aren't the same services we provided for another employee with disabilities at our organization good enough for this individual?

Advocate: It is great that you were able to provide successful accommodations to another employee with disabilities at your workplace. However, every individual is unique and has different needs, whether they have the same disability or not. One individual with Aspergers may be extremely focused and lack social skills. Another may suffer from attention issues and display little focus, particularly distracted by a desire to socialize. Nothing can be assumed. Inclusion means meeting the needs of everyone and listening to their individual challenges. It does not make one employee better than another, or one employee more successful than the next. Only with the proper training and accommodations can an individual be fairly assessed. A person with a disability should never be looked down upon or made to feel like a burden when asking for the accommodations they need.

6. Self-Advocacy vs. Professional Inclusion Training

Workplace: Why does the individual want to speak to his/her coworkers directly? We already provided inclusion training- isn't that enough?

Advocate: The act of sharing information about the disability with peers, coworkers, and supervisors is a very sensitive one. While some individuals may be comfortable speaking about their disability, others may feel very shy or embarrassed. In either case, being able to have this conversation with others is key to developing strong self-advocacy skills. Speaking for the individual limits their ability to have a voice and speak for themselves. If need be, a trusted mentor/advisor can help an individual craft a workplace-appropriate presentation, talk, or short 'script' to ease communication and increase understanding with fellow employees. Only the individual can truly speak to his/her particular disability and needs.

Tips for Inclusion in the Workplace:

If you are the individual with disabilities:

  • never be afraid to stand up for yourself

  • use respectful, clear communication

  • understand the particular challenges you face and how they relate to your disability

  • know what accommodations would be helpful to you and ask for them

  • if need be, ask a trusted advocate to help facilitate clear communication if you are not comfortable handling a situation on your own

If you are working with an individual with disabilities:

  • make him/her feel welcome, a true accepted member of the community

  • ask about his/her particular challenges if they are comfortable speaking about it

  • ask what you can do to help ease communication and improve their workplace experience

It is always difficult to hear about situations in which someone is not being treated fairly, is discriminated against, and/or does not feel like an accepted member of the community. However, with strong self-advocacy skills and a trusted support system, individuals with disabilities can be powerful members of their workplace communities.

If you need support in school, college, or the workplace, We're All Ears!

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