Four upperclassmen discussed their experiences with self-advocacy as students with disabilities in a panel Thursday, sharing advice on how other students with disabilities might advocate for themselves both in the classroom and on campus.
The panelists—LilyFish Gomberg ’20, Emily Dana ’19, Irving Perez ’20 and Shoshi Finkel ’20—described self-advocacy as the skill of figuring out how to get something you need when you’re not getting it.
“It’s your job to say what you need because otherwise people don’t know or people don’t realize [what you need],” Gomberg said. She and the other panelists noted that students with disabilities have a variety of different needs which depend on the individual student, the specifics of their disability and the context of the situation.
The panelists noted that college is an important time to develop self-advocacy skills since, as adults, students cannot rely as heavily on their parents or guardians as they may have used to and will have to use similar skills after college.
“In some ways, it’s easier than having someone else advocate for you because we know ourselves better than anyone else,” Dana said, “I know my body better than anyone else does, so I should be able to ask what I need.” She also noted that being able to self-advocate can help make students—with or without disabilities—more self aware of themselves and their needs.
Scenarios of self-advocacy described by the panelists included reaching out to Student Accessibility Students (SAS), speaking to professors about accommodations and identifying needs to other students in social situations or when working on a group project. Panelists recognized that advocating for oneself in these situations can be nerve-wracking but offered advice and tips often based on their own experiences.
“Make sure that people know who you are,” Finkel suggested to students with disabilities, especially those who may be new to Brandeis. She advised stopping by SAS, academic advisor drop-in hours, the Department of Community Living and the counseling center so that when “you walk into those offices you’re a familiar face and you’re a friendly face and you can get right to that conversation that you need to have.” By establishing a relationship, she said, “they know who you are, they know what you need, [and] they know what works for you” when a problem needs to be solved.
Dana also said establishing relationships was important. “You don’t know who is going to be receptive until you try,” she said. “Be as honest as you’re willing to be,” Dana stated, “I have gotten the most actual accomodations and help when I have decided that is okay for me to be vulnerable—in a private setting of course.”
“It’s hard, coming out as disabled is really scary,” Dana said. “The first step for me was start with your friends, start with the people you already have very strong relationships with,” she said. “Slowly, as you start to see people who are going to be receptive and who are going to be kind, then maybe you can take another step.”
Gomberg said that for some students, including herself, “It’s really hard to know what you’re advocating for if you don’t know what it is that you need.” One strategy she employed early in her first semester at Brandeis, she said, was writing down what would make her anxious about classes. “Then I could see the trends, and I could see what makes me stressed every single time,” she said, “being able to clarify that for yourself is going to make you a more effective advocate for yourself.” She also suggested asking a friend to pretend to be a professor or SAS advisor to practice a conversation and build confidence before actually having it.
When working with other students and peers, “whatever your boundaries are are super valid and fair,” Gomberg said. “If you don’t want to tell people what is going on with you, there are lots of other ways to say I need help without giving all of the information,” she said. She suggested using the statement “it’s a medical thing” to explain a need without having to go into personal details.
The panelists also discussed what to do if a student with a disability finds themselves in a situation where a professor is not being accomodating to their needs.
“Learn from my mistakes, don’t just drop a class or get a bad grade in it just because you’re too embarrassed to bring up that your professor is denying your rights,” Finkel said. Panelists noted that many times professors don’t know that they aren’t being accommodating and talking to them may solve a student’s problem.
SAS is another service students can use if their professor isn’t making the proper accommodations, according to panelists. Panelists noted that if a professor is being outright discriminatory, rather than just ignorant, talking to SAS or filing a form on their website is the best path to solving the problem.
The panelists reminded students who have registered their disability with the university that accommodations are protected by law.