This blog is on topics of interest to early career professionals who work with people with disabilities. Blog contributors have diverse perspectives on leadership, professional development, and success in changing systems to better serve people with disabilities and their families. For more information on Early Career Professionals, check out the website: www.aucd.org/ecp

01 August, 2013

Power of a Skill: Self-Advocacy

Emily Ladau
AUCD Projects Intern



As a recent recipient of my B.A. in English from Adelphi University in Long Island, New York, I am quite new to the community of early career professionals.  Yet, as an intern at AUCD, I realize every day the power of a skill I have been developing practically since I first learned to talk: self-advocacy.  As a young woman with a physical disability, I must constantly advocate on my own behalf.  In the disability community, self-advocacy is considered one of the most valuable skills necessary to achieve your goals. And while it has always been especially crucial for people with disabilities to master this, I believe that learning to advocate for yourself is a valuable tool that can and should be used by all emerging young professionals.  I have found that the same skill set I have developed to advocate for my rights as a person with a disability in my personal life also happens to benefit me professionally.  The ability to self-advocate can serve you well both inside and outside the workplace as you move forward in your career. 

The key to being a successful self-advocate is to develop your sense of self-confidence and self-worth.  This may sound like advice from your middle school guidance counselor, but it’s true!  Being confident and sure of your abilities will help you convey to others what you are capable of doing.  I used to find myself leaning towards making self-deprecating comments so as not to come across as conceited or pretentious, but I’ve come to realize that as a young person pursuing a career, it is not only acceptable, but also essential to learn how to sell yourself by sharing your major accomplishments.  In my case, doing this allows me to showcase my skill sets and passions to potential employers when networking.  Modesty has its place, but in my experience, the only way to garner any notice when making new connections is to highlight your abilities, interests, and achievements.

Furthermore, once you are employed – even if it is temporary employment, such as an internship – and begin to establish yourself in your career path, having the confidence to advocate for yourself and note your achievements can open many doors for advancement.  Granted, I have learned from many role model self-advocates in the disability community that being a great self-advocate most certainly did not lead any of them straight to a position as a president or director of an organization.  Therefore, though I have big goals, I understand that making progress in my career progress requires an incremental approach. 

As an intern at AUCD, I have advocated for myself by speaking up in meetings, telling my supervisors that I can take on many projects, and demonstrating that I have new ideas to bring to the table.  This has made for a rewarding internship experience, because I feel that when you truly believe in yourself, it shows, and others will come to believe in your abilities as well.  For instance, I take pride in the writing and communication skills I gained by working as a writing tutor and majoring in English.  I have thus made it a point to speak up specifically about these skills, which has provided me with chances to work on many great projects.  That being said, a good self-advocate always delivers on their promises.  If you advertise that you have a particular skill or ability and are subsequently assigned tasks that require these skills, make sure your final product is one you’re proud of sharing!

Of course, there is a flip side to self-advocacy.  While advocating for what you can do is important, it is equally imperative to know how to advocate for yourself when you need help.  I mean this in two ways.  First, should you have any kind of disability that necessitates accommodations, it is crucial to speak up for yourself to receive those accommodations in the workplace.  The need for proper accommodations should never be swept under the rug, because getting help is a huge part of achieving career success.  Even if you do not identify as having a disability, be willing to advocate for yourself if you need help in the workplace!  Asking for assistance when you truly need it is respectable and acceptable regardless of ability!

The second facet of asking for help is advocating for your needs by requesting to be taught a new skill.  I often do this in order to capitalize on a project as a learning opportunity.  This does not mean I’m less self-confident by admitting that I do not know something, but rather it shows that I am honest and willing to engage in new things.  I’ve been taught that this type of self-advocacy is mutually beneficial: I gain knowledge that I can use to accomplish future goals, but I also get to use this new knowledge to complete more assignments for my job.  One such example of this occurred when one of my coworkers asked me to update information on a website publishing program.  Having never used it before, I spoke up and explained that although I was unfamiliar with the system, I wanted to learn so I could help.  Now, I have an understanding of how to use it and I can take part in website related projects.  In this way, self-advocacy can create career stepping-stones, allowing you to expand your skill sets and build up your resume.

Above all else, take pride in yourself, and embrace chances to be a self-advocate.  You never know when advocating for yourself may lead you to an incredible opportunity.  Had it not been for the amazing people in the disability community who have taught me the value of self-advocacy in all aspects of life, and those who have modeled how to be an effective self-advocate (thanks, Mom!), I never would have reached where I am today with a budding career in disability rights activism.  I’m incredibly grateful to have spent my summer advocating not just for myself, but also for the disability community that I’m so proud to be a part of.  Whether you are also part of the disability community, or you are a supportive ally working to change the lives of people with disabilities, self-advocacy is truly a gateway to limitless career opportunities.