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Self-Advocacy for College Students

The need for self-advocacy skills in a postsecondary setting is essential. Students who have relied on the support of their parents and others now must be able to help themselves. This vital “rite of passage” enables the learning disabled individual to prepare for independence and success in the adult world. 

Self-advocacy for college students with learning disabilities can be defined as the ability to recognize and meet the needs specific to one’s learning disability without compromising the dignity of oneself or others. Most parents and professionals involved with preparing students with learning disabilities for college would agree that independent decision-making and the ability to express one’s needs are two critical elements of self-advocacy.

Yet, success with making decisions and communicating one’s needs can be difficult for students with learning disabilities beyond high school. Without these skills, however, the transition from high school to college for students with learning disabilities may be daunting. In the college classroom, for example, students may need to show a professor how they learn best. A student with dyslexia who processes written material more slowly may require additional time on an exam to show what he or she is learning. Further, this additional time can often mean the stark difference between doing well and failing.

Given that self-advocacy is essential for prospective college students with learning disabilities to be successful, this article will present four myths about what self-advocacy is for these students as well as responses to these myths. They were chosen because of their prevalence among students with learning disabilities and their parents. Further, these myths often have had a decisively negative effect on these students’ ability to meet needs critical to their success in a college setting. The responses presented address these myths and highlight some best practices for self-advocacy.

Responding to myths about self-advocacy in a postsecondary setting

Myth #1. It’s better to avoid the label “learning disability” because such labels are ultimately damaging to the student’s self-esteem.

Few would argue that students benefit from being labeled. However, for college students there are distinct advantages to “owning” the diagnosis of a learning disability. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, college students have rights that are guarantees to any individual with a disability. For example, some students with significant attention difficulties may learn best with minimal outside distraction. So a student with a diagnosed attention deficit disorder (ADD) may need to take an exam in a separate room, free from distracting visual and auditory stimuli, in order to effectively demonstrate what she or he is learning. If students have not faced their learning disability to some degree, they most likely do not know their rights as a disabled person, or what specific accommodations are tailored to their specific needs.

In response to Myth #1, the suggested practices are:

  • Know how to describe your learning disability, as well as your specific academic strengths and weaknesses to a variety of different audiences.
  • Begin to accept the term “learning disability” as a description of difficulties and as an aspect of how you learn. Do not let it determine your identity.
  • Sample accommodations appropriate to your learning disability based on information in your diagnostic report. Try out different accommodations and then decide which ones work for you.
  • Read about other adults with learning disabilities who were successful in college.

Myth #2. Now that there are programs or students with learning disabilities at many postsecondary settings, their existence guarantees that students’ essential needs will be met.

Unfortunately, this is not so. Even very comprehensive LD support programs may not emphasize the need of students to advocate for themselves in a college or university setting. While a students’ rights to “reasonable accommodations”are protected under the law, the exact nature of the accommodation often rests upon the student’s ability to negotiate with a professor. Too often students negotiate away their rights by not knowing their rights before they see a professor. They may assume that they did not need to approach the professor because there is an LD support program on campus. For example, once a student has taken a test without requesting accommodations, there is little that the l.D support services office can do when a student later realizes that more time was needed.

In response to Myth #2, suggested practices are:

  • Take responsibility for your learning disability.
  • Practice becoming more assertive with professors and support staff.
  • Find a relaxed but confident communication style.
  • Get to know professors and administrators in your program.

Myth #3. Obtaining the highest grades possible is the major yardstick of effective self-advocacy. Better grades lead to increased options upon leaving a postsecondary setting.

It is true that higher grades will lead to more options for students considering professions that require graduate schooling. However, grades are not the only factors that come into play. Students with learning disabilities will often have to work much harder than their peers to achieve comparable academic outcomes. Unfortunately, higher grades do not mean that one has truly learned to self-advocate. If by the definition of self-advocate we include meeting one’s needs beyond the need for high grades (i.e., the need to show how one is learning, to be more self-aware, to become competent, confident, to affiliate with others, to contribute to the well-being of others), this yardstick measure falls short of what college can offer. Examples abound of students with learning disabilities who have mastered getting high grades but are left isolated and miserable in the process, ultimately hurting their development towards healthy, functional independence. If the bottom line is independence in the world of work, it may not be true that the better one’s grades, the more successful the worker. Social skills coupled with competence in one’s field are the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

In response to Myth #3, the suggested practices are:

  • Join a support group for students with learning disabilities on your campus, or start one!
  • Enjoy relaxing and growth-oriented activities (e.g., sailing with a friend).
  • Seek a balance academically and socially
  • Get involved in an activity on campus for as much time as you feel you can afford. It’s a great way to meet people and develop social skills.
  • Ask for help with personal difficulties you may be having by seeing a professional in the counseling center on campus.

Myth #4. When students encounter a very difficult academic situation, it’s best to let their parents take over.

This could not be further from the truth! While parents had to be strong advocates in many instances during their son’s or daughter’s prior school years, in college it is the students’ responsibility to act on their own behalf. College affords students the opportunity to learn to problem solve, to draw on their own resources of independence and to seek the assistance of support staff, if needed. For the student who may not think they can get what they need, the LD support services office has professionals trained to facilitate a student’s self-advocacy needs while respecting their dignity and need to make choices. Too many well-meaning parents have “chosen” a major for their son or daughter, directed them as to which support services they need and have told tutors or professors how their daughter or son should be taught. Further, excessive parent involvement can engender resentment among college professors and support staff, especially those who do not directly work with students with learning disabilities. They may perceive such involvement as overprotective or meddling.

In response to Myth #4, the suggested practices are:

  • Parents can join support groups in their area even after their daughter or son has left for college.
  • Parents need to let go. They cannot be in charge of the adult life of their son or daughter.
  • Realize that the most valuable lesson a student can learn as they are on the threshold of adulthood is learning about the consequences of their actions.
  • Above all, a student with a learning disability needs to become comfortable with asking for help from those most able to be effective in meeting their needs in a postsecondary setting, whether they be professors, LD service providers, persons in career or counseling services, and others.


The opportunities for self-advocacy proliferate as students with learning disabilities enter college. Students ought to be encouraged to take part in as many of these opportunities for demonstrating their independence as possible. Learning self-advocacy skills is a “win-win” proposition for college students with learning disabilities.

Parents, professional staff and faculty win when students learn to negotiate effectively to have their needs met. Students with learning disabilities benefit most from developing self-advocacy skills for the realities of a postsecondary setting and the world beyond.

The preciously cited myths about what to do in college as a student with a learning disability highlight some of the pitfalls that need to be avoided. Using these suggestions for self-advocacy with students with learning disabilities will help them to better address the realities of a postsecondary setting.

Richard Goldhammer and Loring C. Brinckerhoff National Center for Learning Disabilities, 1993

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