Student Voice

Prioritizing Agency for Students With Disabilities

When students with disabilities develop self-advocacy and self-determination, they can engage more effectively in their education.

A teacher talks to her student while kneeling next to his desk

Should the individualized education program (IEP) be primarily a vehicle for legal compliance, or can it be a learning experience for the student, her educator, and her parents? Most students, parents, and educators would rather it be the latter, but it too often devolves into the former because of legal considerations or established norms or discomfort with talking about students with them present.

It’s no surprise, then, that students with disabilities often struggle in postsecondary education, the workforce, and civic life when they must face important decision-making opportunities for the first time. Too many enter these opportunities with little to no experience of being engaged in actively planning and making decisions around issues affecting their learning and lives.

Research shows that students who practice self-advocacy skills (those skills associated with understanding one’s rights and needs and communicating and acting on that understanding) and self-determination (the capacity to be the primary agent in one’s learning and life) have improved educational and life outcomes when compared to those who don’t. Thus, it is imperative that our education system help young people develop these skills and provide opportunities for them to effectively participate in their own education and civic life.

In our recent report on self-advocacy skills and self-determination in personalized learning, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) points to actions that can flip the equation, putting the student at the center rather than the periphery of decision-making meetings (see our webinar on this topic). Students can become more involved participants—and eventually, leaders—in their IEP and transition meetings.

Families and communities can support student involvement and help students with disabilities engage in real-world learning opportunities where they can practice these skills, and educators can provide more explicit instruction for students to develop the skills associated with self-advocacy and self-determination. NCLD calls on policy makers to take a proactive role in incentivizing and supporting this type of learning.

Fostering Self-Advocacy and Self-Determination

NCLD’s report highlights several key steps that open the door for these changes.

1. Make self-advocacy and self-determination critical priorities in education systems. We communicate and demonstrate which skills are valuable in our education system by prioritizing them throughout, such as by incorporating them into teacher preparation and assessments of learning and through associated measures of school performance such as chronic absenteeism.

There are a number of ways to go about this. Some states—like Maryland—may choose to take up more rigorous or longer duration capstone requirements, which have students apply skills and learning to the work of solving real-life problems. In other cases, educators and families may decide to make skills like goal setting, problem solving, and self-advocacy explicit goals in student IEPs.

Regardless of what level this happens in, if we deem these to be important skills, we need to abide by a long-standing and important principle: Measure what you treasure.

2. Ensure that personalized learning opportunities are designed to maximize the engagement of all students, regardless of disability status. Learning choices should be flexible and accessible for all, with a recognition that individuals’ strengths and needs differ widely. This can help ensure that students are engaged and invested in learning and have a meaningful reason to show up.

One key means to achieve this is to pair a personalized learning effort with work based on Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL enables educators to design learning opportunities for students in ways that provide multiple means of engagement, representations of content, and ways to express knowledge.

Together, these options are aligned with what we have learned about the human brain and how individuals learn, and they optimize the following networks of the brain to maximize student learning: affective (which processes the why of learning), recognition (the what), and strategic (the how).

3. Provide students with tangible opportunities and experiences to practice self-advocacy skills and self-determination in their education. Students should be taught and encouraged to empower themselves by understanding their needs and rights, communicating them, solving problems, setting goals, and engaging in active reflection.

This can happen through multiple means, including hands-on learning opportunities—such as service learning and work-based learning—and also by more fully engaging students in meetings where decisions about their learning and lives are made.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the actions that can be taken. These steps can help create a new dynamic between adults and students, but NCLD knows these changes aren’t easy. They require an investment of time, resources, and training; intentional actions; difficult conversations; and most of all, a mindset that all students can make active choices about their learning and lives. Yet taking these steps is essential to aligning the education we provide for our students and the demands of the world they will enter after school.