Here, we spotlight some useful tools that will help you become your own best advocate in school, work, and beyond.
What is Self-advocacy and Why Does It Matter?
Imagine this: You’re at a restaurant with some friends, and the server comes by and asks what you want to order. One of your friends immediately speaks up and tells the server what you want, without ever asking you. What would you think? How would you feel?
We might feel surprised and upset that a friend assumed they knew what we wanted without even asking us. We also might take offense that the friend spoke to the server for us and without our permission – as if we are incapable of ordering our own food. These feelings might even lead us to question the nature of the friendship.
Some might say, “That would never happen in real life.” Yet, when we really think about it, incidents like this happen to blind/low-vision students and other people with disabilities too often. Unless we share our needs and desires first, others may try to do it for us.
But, even more importantly, who knows our needs better than we do? Answer: Nobody! This is why it’s so important for all individuals with disabilities to become effective self-advocates in their own best interest. Luckily, the National Federation of the Blind, a national consumer organization of blind people, has developed some great resources to help us do just that!
NFB Self-Advocacy Toolkits
In elementary and high school, most blind/low vision students have an IEP (individualized education program). This document encompasses both educational rights to a free appropriate public education and civil rights to accommodations that are also guaranteed under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
After high school, the IEP is no longer in effect, but both Section 504 and the ADA continue to provide civil rights protections against disability-related discrimination and grant the right to request and receive disability-related reasonable accommodations. That all changes when you go to college. These laws entitle college students with disabilities to accommodations that make the college experience accessible and inclusive.
The NFB Self-Advocacy in Higher Education Toolkit (S-A HE Toolkit) provides find clear, concise explanations of our rights and how our schools can and should accommodate our needs. This SHE Toolkit also offers a variety of advocacy tips, information about requesting accommodations, places to find peer support, and even resources for school administrators who need to learn more about our needs as blind/low vision students. In NFB’s own words: “This toolkit is designed for you—blind students seeking to better understand the higher education accommodation request process, mitigate access barriers on campus, and ultimately succeed at your schools and in your chosen areas of study. By being strong and knowledgeable self-advocates, you can create a firm foundation on which to build collegiate success.”
The NFB also provides this information in Spanish in a downloadable PDF document, autodefensa_en_la_educacion_superior_Versión_2.0.
So school’s finished, and it’s time to land that dream job. Is this the end of our need to self-advocate? Alas, that’s not the world we live in. Many people find that their self-advocacy journey is just beginning at this point. Fortunately, there’s a Toolkit for that too!
The NFB Self-Advocacy in Employment Toolkit (S-A E Toolkit) explains an employee’s rights under the law, how to request accommodations, and how to remedy a situation where an employer isn’t providing necessary accommodations. The S-A E Toolkit also provides several helpful resources from the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal laws that prohibit disability discrimination in employment as well as links to relevant legislation and court cases, to the Job Accommodation Network, and to other valuable resources.
Here’s how NFB describes the Toolkit in its introduction: “The National Federation of the Blind believes in the capacity of blind people and seeks to build more equal opportunities in employment for blind people across the country. Please use this toolkit as a launch pad to learn about your rights, other employment resources, and actions you can take to self-advocate. Many agencies and nonprofits, including the National Federation of the Blind, have created exceptional resources regarding the rights of employees and job applicants with disabilities and best practices for self-advocacy. Much of this toolkit refers to federal law, though many states have enacted similar or stronger legislation.”
The NFB also provides this information in Spanish on the Herramientas de autodefensa en el empleo web page.
SAT, ACT, GRE, AP, MCAP… these are just a few of the many high-stakes tests in our educational system. In fact, we’re willing to bet that you’ve taken at least one high-stakes test in your life—likely more than one. Because of their prevalence and the importance of accommodations in them, they deserve a Toolkit of their own. So NFB did just that.
The NFB High-Stakes Testing Self-Advocacy Toolkit examines the accommodation processes for several tests individually and gives students guidance for requesting accommodations they need, and for dealing with access-related issues. When faced with a test to get into college or further your professional life, check out this Toolkit.
More NFB Self-Advocacy Resources
These Toolkits represent just one part of the NFB ’s wide-ranging advocacy program. Additional advocacy-related NFB web pages include:
- A Blind Parent’s Essential Guide to Effective Communication from Public and Private Schools
- FAQs of Total Permanent Disability (TPD) Student Loan Discharge Program
- General Summary and FAQs of Total Permanent Disability (TPD) Student Loan Discharge Program
More advocacy information
On its Advocacy Resources web page, the NFB sets forth many primary sources of laws, regulatory guidance, and background information about disability rights. These resources cover protections from disability discrimination as well as rights to accessibility. Other resources include information about Vocational Rehabilitation programs, Social Security information, and even documents to help secure Free Matter mailing from the U.S. Post Office. Additionally, this web page shares the following “model” laws – to provide a framework for legislative action on the state level.
- Model Accessible Prescription Label Legislation
- Model Blind Students Rights to Independence Training and Education Act
- Model Parental Rights Legislation
- Model Accessible Voting Legislation
- Model Braille Literacy Legislation
- Model Phase Out and Elimination of Subminimum Wages Legislation
Advocacy in Action: Washington Seminar
For those interested in diving into legislation and advocacy beyond their own needs, the NFB provides an opportunity to do so with members of the U.S. Congress: the NFB Washington Seminar. Each winter, NFB members – including high school and college students from across the nation – gather in Washington, D.C., and meet with their Congressional representatives (including U.S. Senators) “to learn about and advocate for legislative initiatives that will improve the lives of blind Americans.” As noted on the Washington Seminar web page, “These initiatives, which form the Washington Seminar priorities, are based on the official positions of the NFB adopted at the national convention.”
If the Washington Seminar sounds interesting, take the opportunity to review NFB Policy Statements (2015 through 2023) and the 2023 Legislative Priorities of the 2023 Washington Seminar. The 2024 Washington Seminar will take place Monday, January 29 through Thursday, February 1, 2024.
Reach Out to the Free Bridges Helpdesk
Even with these helpful resources, we realize that self-advocacy can sometimes be intimidating. We’re here to help! Contact the Bridges Helpdesk anytime about your advocacy needs, and we’ll work through them with you. We want you to be the most powerful voice in the room when the subject is you. Your voice counts; use it!
Contact the Bridges Helpdesk for More Information
- Our Accessible web form
- Email: Helpdesk@imagemd.org
- Text: Send to: (410) 357-1546
- Voice mail: Call (410) 357-1546, leave a voice mail message, and we will return your call
This unique project is being coordinated through The IMAGE Center of Maryland, a center for independent living in Towson, and it is funded by a grant from the Maryland Department of Education Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services.
Updated as of September 17, 2023.