Editor’s note: Be sure to register for our webinar on Self-Advocacy and Low Vision on July 26.
by Melanie Peskoe
This July 26th marks the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since its passage in 1990, we’ve seen a lot of positive changes in the United States related to how people with disabilities are received in public, private, and online spaces. While this law has created needed changes, there is still much work to be done. There are people and organizations doing the work, but frankly, a big part of the work needs to come from each one of us who has a disability. The most important work is the art of self-advocacy.
Self-advocacy, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, is “the action of representing oneself or one’s views or interests.” I described an example of self-advocacy from my life in a recent blog. In my example a friend and I went to lunch, and when it was time to order, the server asked my friend for my order. I practiced self-advocacy by speaking up for myself (in a polite but assertive way) and letting the server know that I would like to order for myself. There are many other examples I could give about times when I’ve needed to practice self-advocacy. For the most part, I have navigated those waters successfully, but at times, I have not been so cool, calm and collected as I was with the server during my lunch date.
I’m ashamed to say, that on occasion I have let my ego, pride, anger and embarrassment get in the way of the opportunity to educate someone and potentially change an attitude. I regret those times now, because some of those situations left me feeling rotten and ashamed; and likely left the other person feeling embarrassed, upset, and less interested in interacting with another person who is blind or visually impaired. Let me explain.
Julie Brock, a former VisionAware Peer Advisor, once wrote an excellent blog post about self-advocacy in which she described the difference between aggressive and assertive behavior. She explained that “aggressive behavior means that you are trying to get your needs met without considering the rights and needs of others.” I don’t know about you, but I can raise my hand to this one. I’ve always wanted to be heard and treated “normal” – no matter the cost. I’m not proud of that, but I am sure some of you can probably relate.
Julie went on to write, “aggressive behavior may actually hurt your chances of getting what you need. It may affect public attitude toward people with vision loss by making people less likely to listen and to respond positively to expressed needs. Aggressive behavior may leave others with the impression that perhaps all people with vision loss behave this way.” Yep, my hand is still raised. I have been that person and I’ve also learned from it.
Over the years I have learned from the old adage that, “you attract more flies with honey…” It’s far more effective to practice polite assertiveness rather than meanness and aggression.
A much more positive form of self-advocacy is the practice of assertiveness over aggression. Julie explained that assertive behavior is, “..[to be] forthright yet polite, avoiding behavior that is disrespectful and rude… [to be] honest and [have] open communication that is respectful of the other person.” I am happy to say that far more often in my life I’ve used these tactics to practice self-advocacy with much more positive results. It just wasn’t always easy. I had to learn some skills before I could really practice self-advocacy with ease. It’s like the other old adage, “you have to walk before you run.” As I learned more about myself, I also learned how to hone those skills, and I eventually earned my running shoes.
Julie wrote, and I agree wholeheartedly, that, “self-awareness is key to practicing assertive behavior as you navigate the various situations each day brings.” I’ll add that self-awareness takes time and effort. I developed self-awareness as I grew more comfortable in my own skin. When I started to learn that my visual impairment didn’t define me any more than my left-handedness, I began to understand that how I present myself matters much more than the fact that I can’t see.
Self-awareness is a process in which you first learn about who you are and then explore how you can best participate in life and show up in the world. It was only then that I began to see how my own actions and reactions played a big part in self-advocacy as displayed through assertiveness.
Example of Aggressive Behavior
In her blog post, Julie gave a great example of the difference between aggressive and assertive responses when a server hands you a print menu that you can’t read. You can handle it one of two ways. You can yell at the server, saying it’s obvious you can’t read the menu! They should know that. A more assertive reaction would be to politely explain that you can’t see the menu and ask if they might have a braille or large print menu and, if not, could they please read it to you. Of course, the second response is much better. You’re advocating for your needs, but not by belittling or being rude. Remember the flies and honey…
Unlike my eye condition, advocating for myself wasn’t a skill set I was born with. Nope, it was forged by trial and error. I have made a lot of flubs along the way and stepped on a lot of toes (both literally and figuratively!) too. Through every opportunity to practice self-advocacy (whether I’ve handled it well or poorly), I learned something about myself. Looking back over those experiences I can share one more adage with you… “try and fail rather than fail to try.”
Additional Information on Self-Advocacy
Hannah Fairburn: Self-advocacy when you can’t see
Julie Brock: Self-advocacy: how aggressive and assertive behaviors differ