Steps To Becoming A Self-Advocate
Know who you are and what your needs are.
What are your interests? Strengths and weaknesses? What is your disability? What types of accommodations or modifications do you need to successfully participate in the activity?
- Sheila loves to go camping. Sheila is independent, but this will be the first camping trip she plans all by herself for her and her friends. Sheila knows she can put up her own tent and fix her own dinner. Sheila uses a wheelchair to get around and will need an accessible campsite that is near an accessible bath house with a shower chair.
Know what you want and why you want it.
If you are planning a recreational outing, call ahead to find out if facilities are accessible (this is all relative to someone else's definition of accessible) and what types of services they offer. Ask questions.
- Sheila will call the park to reserve an accessible campsite and request that she be placed as close as possible to an accessible bath house. Sheila will ask if she can roll her chair into the shower and the toilet stalls. She will ask if there is a shower chair there or will she need to bring her own, etc.
Know what you are legally entitled to.
As a person with a disability, you have certain rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (U.S. Department of Justice, 1990). These are your rights under the ADA:
- Right to Participate: You have the right to participate in public and/or private recreation or leisure activities as long as you meet the essential eligibility requirements (which vary across activities).
- Right to the Most Integrated Setting: You have the right to participate in the setting that will offer you the maximum extent of interaction possible with other participants both with and without disabilities.
- Right to Reasonable Accommodations: You have the right to reasonable accommodations to meet the essential eligibility requirements, if the accommodations are necessary to enable your participation in the activity of your choice. Accommodations will be provided by the organizer of the service you are seeking to participate in.
- Right to Adaptive Equipment: You have the right to utilize adaptive equipment that will help you successfully participate in an activity.
- Right to Assessment or Evaluation: You have the right to not be discriminated against due to a perception of risk or strict application of safety policies and rules. Providers of recreation services will have to assess the risk of your participation, in addition to your abilities and experience in the activity of choice. This assessment will also consider reasonable accommodations. It is important to note that the provider should be applying this assessment to all potential participants (with and without disabilities).
Accommodations can be considered unreasonable:(a) if they would give you an unfair advantage in a competitive sport; (b) the accommodations are too costly; (c) too difficult; or (d) would place an undue burden on the provider.
Examples of reasonable accommodations are:
a) Changes in rules or policies
b) Interpreters or other aids for those who are deaf or have hearing impairments
c) Braille for those who are blind
d) Wheelchair ramps for accessible entrances.
Examples of adaptive equipment include:
a) Sport wheelchairs
b) Grip devices for holding art brushes or fishing poles
c) Mobility devices
d) Communication devices.
Achieve Your Goal
Now that you know your rights as a person who has a disability, here are some ideas to help you achieve your goal of becoming your own advocate and taking charge of your recreational pursuits.
- Assert Yourself: This is the hardest part!
a. Practice what you will say.
b. Speak clearly.
c. Maintain eye contact.
d. Take your time when talking.
e. Ask for time to think if you need it.
f. Rephrase what you hear to be sure you understand.
g. Be respectful.
h. Be conscious of your body language (do you look angry?).
i. Use "I" statements (i.e., "I feel that," not "You have to").
j. Be flexible (you may have to compromise).
- Ask For Change: What have you got to lose?
a. Start at the top. Always talk to someone in charge. This will keep you from having to explain your situation over and over again.
b. Make clear, specific requests with rationales for the requests.
c. Don't make personal insults, accusations, or get into arguments – remember you want to make positive change.
d. Put it in writing (always document your request – you never know when you might need documentation).
e. Encourage others to join your efforts.
- Follow-up: Make change happen.
a. Always follow up.
b. If action was taken, send a thank-you note.
c. If nothing has changed, contact the appropriate authorities (U.S. Department of Justice). Remember, there are laws in place to protect you.
d. Make sure to document all contact with the agency or program you are trying to access.
e. Keep trying!
This seems like a lot of work, but according to the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA, 2002), "Over 50 million individuals with disabilities face physical and service barriers that tend to discourage personal and professional development, diminish involvement in community life, and often constrain personal recreation." The association adds, "Access to recreation sites and programs for individuals with disabilities contributes to self-confidence, functional ability, independence, and vocational skills." In light of this, it seems that if you do not advocate for your personal access to recreation activities and venues, you are doing yourself a disservice, as you are missing out on not only the benefits previously mentioned by NRPA but fun opportunities to try new and exciting things that can enrich your life.
The remaining question is: Are you ready to take charge of your leisure pursuits? If so, the following case studies are presented as a way to practice your advocacy skills…what will you do?