Self-Advocacy: A podcast for students welcomes SDI staff

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Self-advocacy is perhaps the most crucial skill young people with disabilities must develop as they transition from high school to college. SDI’s Sarah Schwegel and Katie Fields recently joined Nellie Hopmann of Webster University for a podcast on this important topic.


“Initially, we reached out to Nellie, the Academic ADA Coordinator at Webster, just to get to know her, connect with some of her students, and explore some possibilities for joint programming,” Katie says. “After speaking with Nellie about accommodations and self-advocacy, she mentioned Webster was producing a podcast series on diversity, and we agreed that self-advocacy would be a great topic.”


Nellie asked a number of questions about the meaning of self-advocacy, knowing one’s rights and responsibilities as they pertain to accommodations and access, and taking full advantage of the resources available on campus. As SDI’s Youth Transition and College Outreach Coordinators, respectively, Sarah and Katie are uniquely qualified to address such matters.


Primary themes of the conversation included the importance of honestly assessing one’s strengths and challenges, setting reasonable goals, identifying helpful campus contacts, and requesting accommodations in a timely fashion.


For recent high school graduates accustomed to having their accommodations handled for them by parents or school administrators, this new level of responsibility can be a bit overwhelming at first. As Katie explains during the podcast, however, part of self-advocating involves building a network of support, so students don’t have to navigate the process alone. Sarah is also quick to point out that parents can be a valuable part of this support network, but they must be mindful of not overstepping boundaries.


Discussions of college accommodations often focus on the classroom, but the ADA covers all aspects of education, including access to campus activities and opportunities for student involvement. During the podcast, Sarah, who uses a wheelchair, describes her own disappointment in not learning this fact until her junior year. As she explains in a subsequent interview, the ADA applies to school-sponsored events taking place off-campus as well.


“I was going on a leadership retreat to Disney World, and the leader of the trip was hesitant to let me bring an attendant,” Sarah recalls. “We got the access office involved, and I was allowed to bring an attendant after all, so it was totally fine. That’s when I learned that the ADA extends to all facets of student life, even if they take place off-campus.”


Although Katie didn’t register her medical condition as a disability with the Academic Resource Center while she was a student at Webster, she disclosed it to her professors right away so they wouldn’t get the wrong idea about her occasional absences. For the most part, this strategy proved effective.


“Some of them were like, ‘why are you telling me this,’ but as the semester went on and they noticed how seriously I approached my studies, I think they began to understand why I told them in the first place,” Katie says. “They knew how much it upset me to miss class, but most professors were very receptive and encouraged me to take the time I needed to manage my health.”


Although Katie and Sarah’s own college experiences differ in some ways, they both agree that students should request accommodations freely, without fear of being a burden.


“A lot of students I encounter have the mindset of not wanting to bother anyone when they’re faced with an obstacle,” Katie says. “Students need to become more comfortable being vocal and not feeling bad about it. You’re not bothering anyone by wanting equal access to education and full participation in campus life.”


Sarah adds, “By learning how to articulate your needs in an academic setting, you’ll be more prepared to do it in an employment setting, which is the ultimate goal.”


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