By Melissa Carney
At one point or another in our lives, we have all heard the term “advocacy.” We may have heard it in reference to standing up for a group, individual, or specific cause. Or perhaps it was referenced when the need arose to exercise our own rights and opinions. Self-advocacy is often a gateway to respect, confidence, and determination. For example, we speak up about public transportation barriers which hinder our independence. We ask for paperwork to be converted into electronic formats so we can maintain privacy or inclusion. We educate our local communities about our ability to live fully productive and fulfilling lifestyles. However, self-advocating is not simple by any means. The situations that warrant self-advocacy come in many colors, shapes, and sizes, as do the processes in which we discover our approaches toward the tasks at hand. With that in mind, I would like to illustrate what I believe to be the six hardest truths to face when advocating for yourself.
These lessons take years to learn, which is why they are so difficult to identify at first. Embracing these aspects of self-advocacy are necessary steps on your journey and will boost your abilities to adapt and persevere.
1. We often do not realize when we are self-advocating.
Certain instances of self-advocacy are obvious, such as emailing a professor about inaccessible course materials, requesting an APS at a nearby intersection, or filling out a form for appropriate disability-related accommodations for a virtual presentation. But what about the scenarios that occur in our everyday lives, the moments that are so thoroughly embedded in our routines that we do not even notice? Whether you are a new or seasoned advocate, you may not realize just how much you depend on your advocacy skills. If you politely ask someone not to pet your guide dog while he or she is working, you are advocating for yourself. If you ask someone to describe a photo posted on social media, you are advocating for yourself. Even if you do not step out of your comfort zone in a dramatic way, your voice is far from silent. The most seemingly small and inconsequential gestures have a significant impact on the ways in which you view yourself, and others view you in turn. As blind and visually impaired individuals, our mere disability forces us to take charge of a situation more than we give ourselves credit for. We grant ourselves the power to explore various avenues of self-advocacy due to all the inherent practice opportunities in place.
2. Self-advocacy skills do not develop overnight.
Self-advocacy is a masterpiece in the making. It is not something you are instantly familiar with or adept at doing. It can feel like quite a daunting task at first. When we notice shortcomings in our lives and begin to possess the aspiration to speak up for ourselves as a result, we do not necessarily know how to proceed and apply that desire to specific, highly individualized situations. Self-advocacy requires a great deal of patience, trial, and error. We constantly discard old approaches for new ones or add to an ever-growing repertoire of problem-solving strategies. Sometimes we succeed, but other times we fail; it is in those moments of failure that we must evolve from mistakes or missed chances and become stronger, more diverse thinkers. You must believe in the benefits of advocating for yourself to maximize your impact. For example, when you plant and maintain a garden, flowers, vegetables, and other plants must be cultivated with care and patience to grow over time. You may not observe the best showing the first year, or even the second. The point of the matter is that your effort is continuous.
3. While self-advocacy may mean that you speak out on your own, you do not have to do it alone.
As ironic as it sounds, one of the surest ways to increase a person’s independence is to surround them with a loyal support network. A support network is comprised of those people who encourage the individual to take chances and pursue aspirations. These are the people who form a foundation that buffers feelings of suffocating isolation and anxiety. Assuming that advocating for yourself is a completely solo effort places unnecessary pressure on you. Every advocate deserves a community that provides fresh perspectives, backup, and/or guidance. Learn to properly delegate tasks if you carry too much weight on your shoulders. Your supporters may be comprised of family members and friends, or you may find mentors with similar lived experiences who advise you based on their own past mistakes and accomplishments. Either way, there are people waiting to offer a helping hand in times of need.
4. It is vital to strike a balance between asking for help and saying “no.”
Depending on who you talk to, some will say that it is shameful to ask for help, as you cannot completely rely on others to find your personal stride, but some will say that asking for help is in fact a form of self-advocacy. As stated above, a self-advocate does not have to fight his or her battles alone, nor should they hesitate when determining which situations require outside assistance, and which they are prepared to navigate independently. For example, if you arrive at a train station, and someone approaches you to ask if you need assistance, it may be perfectly reasonable to politely decline the offer if you are familiar with your route. However, if another person approaches you at a train station that you have not visited before, you may choose to accept the assistance. Based on your experiences, and how you best travel, receive accommodations, work, take classes, etc., you will learn that critical balance of advocating for pure independence. Eventually, you will gain a better understanding of how and when you could benefit from extra support. As blind and visually impaired individuals, we all have days in which we challenge ourselves or step out of our comfort zones, but the balance to that attitude is being able to admit when we are flustered, on a time crunch, or simply exhausted, and need to reach out. Your voice has the power to say “no” and “yes” in equal measure.
5. You must choose your battles.
We are all human, and it is only natural to feel run down at times. We may strive for perfection in our efforts, but the true test is confronting the reality that we physically and mentally cannot eliminate every single barrier in our paths. Each day brings a new set of circumstances, triumphs, and difficulties. There are moments when we feel as though we can take on the world, no matter how much emotional energy we expend, there is plenty more to draw from. On the contrary, there are instances in which we feel defeated. Sometimes there are other external factors inhibiting our ability to advocate, or we have advocated so much already that we are overwhelmed. You may feel a nagging responsibility to conquer every issue, but if you are coming at that issue with frustration and desperation born out of exhaustion, your overall impact may not be as significant as if you took a step back to evaluate and proceed accordingly. Be prepared for both good and bad days. Likewise, if the burden is too heavy for you to bear, ask others to help you carry the weight. You may just have to temporarily pass the baton onto someone else, and there is no shame in that. As advocates, when we push so hard for so long, we need breaks. We need to focus on the basics of self-care.
6. We never truly stop learning about self-advocacy.
Whether you are brand new to self-advocacy or consider yourself a seasoned veteran, there is plenty of room for growth. We can always learn new lessons or approaches from others. An effective self-advocate is one who can draw from not only their own life experiences, but also the perspectives, trials, and successes of their peers. There is limitless room for innovation and creativity. Stagnancy, assumption, and arrogance are dangerous. As society evolves, so do strategies for advocacy. Guidance and understanding between various generations, identities, and groups are critical to remaining open-minded and resilient.