Learning the Hard Way:
Becoming a Successful Self-Advocate

By Andrea Czaban, Communication Consultant
State of New Mexico Commission for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons

Change, even for the better, can be uncomfortable. When a bump in the road becomes visible, we may want to move backward, or stand still, paralyzed with fear of the unknown. Each life transition molds us into something different than we were before.

Deaf and hard of hearing students face specific challenges in regard to transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and from the classroom to the working world.

I have learned that the difference between a successful transition and a difficult transition can be summed up in two words: self-determination and self-advocacy. Along with careful planning, effective communication, and access to good information, deaf and hard of hearing students who have learned to advocate for themselves can make a smoother transition to life beyond high school.

My own transition from childhood to adulthood was difficult. My family and I had little to no support or transition services. While I was fortunate that my hearing loss was diagnosed at eight months of age, early intervention programs have evolved greatly from the late 60's and 70's! In my schooling days, there were no IEP's, interpreters, or accommodations. I was mainstreamed without any of that support. I struggled through every major transition in my life.

I look at the services available to Deaf and hard of hearing students today and wonder how different my life would have been had I had access to these same services. Growing up, isolated and alone, I didn't know who to approach for support. My parents weren't much help. They simply couldn't believe that I was unable to hear. I think they thought I could get along fine without any special help.

IEP's were not implemented until 1975. Some services were provided in the 1980's, but we all know that reasonable accommodations and modifications are not always in place today as they should be by law.

I realize that I not only survived without support services, I succeeded. My struggles made me who I am today, for which I am grateful. I wanted to use my experiences to give back to the Deaf and hard of hearing community. In 2003, I became a teacher of the Deaf at a specialized program in a public school. I taught my students not only how to utilize the services that were available to them, but also how to maximize their own strengths. Along with helping the students to coordinate their high school course list, monitoring their progress relative to their personal and IEP goals, and setting transition goals with them, I taught my students self-advocacy skills that they could apply to their everyday lives.

My goal was that students would leave my classroom knowing the services and accommodations they should reasonably expect from a public education institute, thus, helping them to transition.

I learned about self-advocacy the hard way -- through trial and error. I didn't even know the term in my school age years. Self-advocacy just means being able to speak up for yourself. To speak up, I had to first learn to accept that my hearing loss caused me some difficulties. Hiding these struggles was exhausting and didn't help me succeed in class. I had to expect that teachers didn't know how to provide appropriate accommodations and that I had to teach them about my hearing loss. I had to explain about my difficulties with instruction and notetaking. For example, if I asked a classmate for notes (not an easy thing to do), I would copy them in class. Of course, I missed much of the teacher's instruction because I couldn't lipread and copy at the same time. I had to meet several teachers every day after school to ask clarifying questions about the homework or the class instruction. I learned to explain my learning styles and convince them to make changes in how they presented information. I learned that I could not be afraid to ask for help when I need it. There was no one else to do it for me.

If I had to narrow my focus to the top ways a student can learn to become a better self advocate, I would list them this way:

  1. Learn and accept your disability. Understand that you have a hearing loss and how it affects you ability to get an education. You will not get help if you hide your hearing loss.
  2. Admit your hearing loss to teachers. In order to be successful self-advocate, you need to show your IEP and accommodations/modifications to teachers and ask the teacher to make a copy of the IEP modification page for her/himself. Use the IEP to discuss what you need in the classroom to be successful. The key to getting the appropriate accommodations is advocating for yourself in the classroom.
  3. Know what you need. You will need to participate with the IEP team to list your accommodations/modifications in keeping with your individual needs. Write a list: for example, I need an interpreter, I need a notetaker, I need extended time to complete my homework or testing. I need an after school tutor. Which ones do you think will be the most useful for you?
  4. Know your rights and responsibilities. You must understand your legal rights to an appropriate education and accommodations to meet your needs. You must understand and be able to participate in your IEP, the legal document that protects your rights. If you feel your accommodations do not meet your needs, you must understand the process of changing that IEP. Ask your teacher or your parents to discuss the document with you.
  5. Plan for the future: Think about how where you want to be in the next ten years. What kind of goals will you have after high school graduation? When you have a clear plan for the future, you will be a better advocate and set better goals for your education.
  6. Know where to go for support. When you leave high school, you will notice that the advocacy needs change under new laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. You may need more support through mentors or role models who have navigated the work or secondary education system. Find someone who understands your hearing loss. There are many resources available for those who search for them. For example, in the state of New Mexico , these agencies can assist with information about transition to college and work: the Commission for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Persons, the New Mexico Hands & Voices Chapter, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Community Outreach Program for the Deaf, the Hearing Loss Association of America, and more.

Parents of Deaf and hard of hearing children can play a critical part in helping their child learn to self advocate, and to develop realistic goals. We value the collaboration with parents in designing transition plans.

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