Reflections on Teaching Kids to Advocate for Themselves

children playing outside together

APH’s Director of Accessibility, Diversity, and Inclusion, Tai Tomasi, J.D., M.P.A. (she/her/hers), knows a thing or two about learning to be self-sufficient from an early age. One of 27 children adopted from around the world, Tai was born blind due to retinopathy of prematurity.

From the start, Tai’s parents ensured she received early intervention services, like using tactile objects and braille preparation. By age four, she was attending her local public school and participating in various activities.

“My family was great about having me participate in things like outdoor sports and integrating me into everything, like when my sister would take me out rollerblading or I’d ride my bike around the neighborhood,” she says. “My school had an adaptive sports program so I did things like skiing and rock climbing, and I tried to be involved in everything I was interested in, like being on the swim team like a lot of my family was.”

Getting an Early Start on Independent Living

Tai was fortunate to have a family and a school that embraced diversity and inclusion – not just during Celebrate Diversity Month in April but all year long. But her parents also recognized that Tai would need to live independently someday, so they taught her life skills early on. Naturally, many of these skills are learned by working with Orientation & Mobility (O&M) specialists, but Tai’s parents taught her age-appropriate skills such as doing the dishes when she was six years old or babysitting when she was 10.

“I didn’t even realize at the time that I was learning,” Tai says, “but as I got older I figured out I was learning things I’d use later, which is really important.”

For example, through many years of working with blindness organizations before joining APH, she has seen students go off to college without knowing how to do their own laundry.

“I realize parents may feel like it’s easier to do it themselves,” Tai says. “But when their child who is visually impaired goes off to college, they can’t learn by watching other students. They need to learn for themselves how to do laundry, find a system for choosing clothes, and other independent living skills. The upfront work of teaching your kids to take care of themselves is really important.”

Learning Self-Advocacy to Prepare for Success

“When I was 15, I had no idea how to advocate for myself. It still isn’t always easy,” Tai admits. “I got my first job when I was 15. I dressed up as a crab and waving my arms around outside a seafood restaurant. When the manager returned from a break and learned I was blind, she terminated me after three days. I was devastated and thought, ‘If I can’t be a crab, what can I be?’”

Tai’s mother reminded her that she was already capable of self-advocacy. From age 14, Tai attended her IEP meetings to learn about advocating for herself. Her mother explained this skill would be essential in college. Transitioning from K-12 to college, students no longer have an IEP. They must advocate for their rights under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

“Once kids get to college, there’s no magical plan – they are responsible for all their accommodations, and they need to learn how to do that,” Tai says. “They have to request help and put in documentation to the Student Disability Services Office and learn a little bit about the ADA, so they can understands what kinds of accommodations they can have.”

Making a Smooth Transition to College

Tai learned self-advocacy from her O&M specialist but doesn’t remember talks specific to transitioning to college. She’s surprised by how many students she meets who struggle to discuss their disability or needs.

“I would encourage parents to put their children in touch with mentors – positive role models who are blind,” she says. “That’s the best way they can prepare for what they’ll need to ask for in college. I think mentorship is a huge help in many situations.”

Parents should boost confidence and encourage self-advocacy in their children. Yet, teens might respond better to advice from someone who personally knows the challenges of visual impairment.

“I think reaching out to people who have had similar experiences is extremely helpful,” Tai adds. “One of the most important things anyone can do to help themselves maintain their confidence is to realize that they are enough, and talking to others can affirm that.”