Teaching Your Child About Self-Advocacy
The morning’s task for Kassandra’s third-grade class was to pick one of the pictures 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 an eye condition: 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 miss 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 themself. 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 their needs and preferences as they go about everyday activities. For example, rather than reading the menu to your child at a restaurant, wait until they ask you what the choices are. When you go to the store together, have them ask the clerk where to find a favorite breakfast cereal. Then give feedback on the interaction. Did they speak up so the clerk could hear, look at the clerk as they talked, and accurately receive the information the clerk provided?
In other situations, let them come up with their own suggestions. For example, if you’re at the zoo and know they can’t see what the animals are doing, ask your child what they think the two of you can do. They might tell you that you can move up closer or that they can use the monocular. If not, you can give your child two choices and ask them to pick the one they prefer. These types of opportunities will allow them to begin to practice self-advocacy while you’re there to support them.
Try to anticipate the situations in which they will need to advocate for their own needs and role-play these. If your child is joining a Brownie troop, for example, help them practice asking the leader if she can sit up close enough to see the sewing demonstration or 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 being unable to see the whiteboard, asking the cafeteria worker what choices are available for lunch, or asking a classmate to help find their backpack because it has been moved.
Part of what your child needs to learn about advocating for themself is what information to share about their visual impairment. Often when your child asks a stranger or a casual acquaintance for information or assistance, that person may not understand why they need help. In such instances, it’s important for your child to be able to explain why they need assistance.
In addition to giving your child opportunities to communicate and obtain what they need, it is helpful for you to explain the importance of asserting what matters to them throughout their life. By expressing your own concerns and preferences in their presence and discussing this behavior, you can help your child develop their own skills and behaviors for obtaining what they want or need. Spending time with role models can be another useful support for your child. By talking to older children or adults with blindness or low vision, they can discover how they advocate for themselves and what they tell others about their eye condition.