Self-Advocacy: Practical Advice to the Adult with LD

By: Pat Boyd

As an adult with specific learning disabilities (LD) and director of a national organization committed to the management of LD and attention disorders in adults, I am profoundly aware of the need for individuals to master the "art of self-advocacy." Far too often, newly diagnosed adults are in awe of the professional who has provided their diagnosis. For adults who were diagnosed as children, the LD label often is perceived as the cause of their school-related misery and as an issue belonging to the parent/advocate. When the issue of LD needs to be addressed, neither the professional nor the parent is the appropriate representative in the adult world. Each individual with LD must learn to be his/her own representative.

To be an effective self-advocate requires a high level of knowledge about yourself in any situation. For example, Mark wants to buy a new car; he needs to know in advance the features he wants and the price he can afford. If Mark knows what his financial limits are and how much he values each feature, he can negotiate a purchase with the confidence that he has made the best possible deal for himself. On the other hand, if Mark is not clear about his own needs and desires, the car dealer will likely control the outcome of the sale.

Anyone can become a self-advocate; in fact, most of us already are self-advocates. Success comes from knowing yourself so well that there is no doubt regarding your likes and dislikes, your strengths and your weaknesses. You know whether you enjoy eating cabbage, and you have no problem with your response when cabbage is offered to you. You know the type of movies you like, the clothes you're most comfortable in, and the lifestyle you enjoy. Exercising these preferences as an adult is common and therefore acceptable to the general public.

Issues related to LD are not commonly understood by the general public, but they are common to those of us who have LD. I have such a hard time spelling the words I use in speaking that I avoid handwriting anything. If I am forced to write by hand, I must limit myself to words I can spell correctly or carry an electronic speller to avoid the embarrassment of juvenile grammar or bizarre spelling. I prefer to rely on greeting cards and my computer for printed messages. I know my limitations with spelling, and I know my shame. I also know a variety of strategies and accommodations I can use to reduce the appearance of the limitations and enhance my strengths with the use of words.

Remember that specific learning disabilities make up a category of disabilities with various limitations depending on the individual. A qualified professional can look at your test scores and determine your areas of strengths and weaknesses. But to tell anyone in the general public, "I have learning disabilities, dyslexia, central auditory processing deficits, or attention deficit disorders" tells the listener nothing about how this affects you. You are truly the expert on the effects of LD for you.

Signs of trouble

When you try to read…

  • do the words appear distorted?
  • do you read the words and not know the content?
  • can you figure out the words and content, but it takes you a long time?
  • is your handwriting very large or very small?
  • do you scribble words?
  • do you have trouble distinguishing between a lower case "b" or "d" when writing?

When you are with other people…

  • do you have trouble hearing what people say?
  • do you not "get" jokes?
  • do you have trouble hearing the syllables when asked to sound out a word?
  • are you distracted in a lecture, seminar, or meeting?
  • do you have trouble recalling a specific word or phrase?
  • do the words get jumbled in your mouth or mind when you try to speak?
  • do you have difficulty expressing yourself in a group or do you recall a response an hour or more after it was needed?

When working with math…

  • do you have trouble writing the number?
  • do you have trouble with simple calculations?
  • even when given a calculator, do you have trouble with the mathematical concepts?

Take the time to identify your specific problem in words that the general public can understand. Then also identify the specific strategies that help you attend to the task at hand.

Strategies that work

You may find that you learn more easily when another person shows or tells you what to do than when you read the instructions. You might highlight the printed instructions or rewrite them in your own shorthand. You might use a tape recorder so that you have a record and refresher of the verbal instructions. For some people, graphs, charts, and/or pictures truly are worth a thousand words. If you work best at home, you may consider telecommuting. You may handle multiple tasks well, or you may prefer to focus on one thing at a time. You may use an appointment calendar and answering machine to control interruptions. Computers and calculators are common tools in the workplace; even electronic spell checkers are acceptable. Take the time to identify strategies and solutions that minimize your weak areas in words that the general public can understand. Respect and capitalize on your comfort zones.

Face the fact that you must be able to use the word "disabled" if you want the right to an accommodation. While you may feel that you have only a "difference," the laws that protect your right to accommodations at work and on campus are "Disability Rights Laws." These laws were passed to allow individuals who have a disability the right to be productive using their own methods.

Both the individual with a disability and the entity covered under the law have rights. The employer and educational institution have the right to set standards. Individuals with disabilities have the responsibility to be qualified to meet the established standards. They also have the right to use strategies and aids to accommodate for the effects of their disabilities. Know what the standards are and how you can qualify to meet those standards.

When you can say, "I have a disability," and you can briefly define the immediate problem and solution in words that are familiar to the general public, you are ready to be a successful self-advocate in disability-related situations. You are prepared with skills to request and receive accommodations on an LD issue. Do not tax your listener by trying to define the broad spectrum of learning disabilities in general; stick to the immediate issue that you are facing at the time. In the beginning, limit your statement to, "I have a disability." You may or may not be asked to provide documentation of the specific disability.

Keep in mind that your needs might be met without identifying your disability in an employment situation, because employers are concerned with productivity. Therefore, you may be able to get what you need by saying, "I can be more productive if ." Fill in the blank with your needs, such as, "…if we moved my desk to an area with less traffic," or "…if I had some clerical help for an hour each week." Although we are profoundly aware of our limitations, our assets are more important to the boss. Most employers are willing to invest effort and money to enhance an employee's productivity. After all, you were hired for your skills and talents.

Cooperation and effective communication are vital elements in maintaining a relationship and achieving your goals. While you are not required to disclose your disability, it is in your best interest to disclose when you have exercised all other options and before you are faced with termination. This can be tricky in that many of us have trouble recognizing that our positions are at risk. Pay attention to periodic performance reviews. Then monitor your attitude. How you communicate can say more than what you communicate.

When you know your qualifications, limitations, rights, and responsibilities, you can express your request to have your needs met with a positive statement plus an attitude of cooperation. It is extremely important to monitor your attitude. An assertive person shows confidence that is rarely challenged, while an aggressive person provokes anger that will be fought or avoided. With no effort or emphasis, you will be assertive when you are confident that you are qualified and entitled to have your needs met. A successful self-advocate is, in fact, a person who can advocate in a manner that promotes his/her ability to get the job done, whether at home, at school, or in the workplace.

Pat Boyd Linkages Vol. 4, No. 2 National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center 1997