Step to Success: Finding your voice

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To this point, you may possess a particularly romanticised image of what self-advocacy is. Triumph, victory, fighting for your rights, and so on. It’s difficult to dispute that there’s some truth to this, but the reality is much more hard-wearing and, quite frankly, dull at times. Some of you may be capable and ready to face challenging situations involving conflict from the outset, but self-advocacy is a skill that can be continually built-upon.

It is impossible to write here more than what I consider to be the foundations of self-advocacy, or how to fight your own corner: I feel this skill can be distilled down into an accessible set of suggestions for those starting out. I’ve made countless mistakes regarding my own affairs, and I’d like to think that those reading may be able to avoid the seemingly endless process of trial and error as I’ve had to do over the years.

Without a voice for yourself, and a manner by which to put forward a case underpinned by what you consider to be your “best interests”, you will often find yourself feeling aggrieved and perhaps stepped-on by many processes and systems. But it needn’t be this way.

Start with one concern. Perhaps you’re dealing with asking for an extension, a medical referral, or an appeal of some sort, or you’re just generally not happy with how a situation has been handled and want to do something about it. This may be difficult to believe initially, but, whatever the issue, change may generally be achieved through some means even if it feels impossible at first glance.

Firstly, when you’re starting out on this journey, and have decided what you want to challenge, you should try to avoid listening to anything that is likely to feel adversarial, or perhaps hostile. Your general fear and dread decreases over time, but don’t allow yourself to be scared off your goal at this early stage.

Patience, and kindness for yourself, is paramount. Don’t set yourself up for potentially severe distress from the outset, even if you just want to go in like some sort of rock ’n’ roll commando. Part of you is probably not going to be ready for some of what will follow, particularly if the chosen concern has an emotional element.

You need to look after yourself when taking this road to self-advocacy. Thankfully, your fight doesn’t have to be oral to begin with: writing your views is just as valid. Once you’re more confident and a little more well-travelled, your own style will come. It ebbs and flows according to your own strengths and capabilities, and there is by no means a “one true path”. As long as you want to work toward genuine change, regardless of how you’re feeling or perceive your own capabilities, then you’re good, you’re solid, and you’ve got an outcome in mind. Let’s get you doing some good work.

The next thing to know is that objectivity is often lost on us when dealing with our own issues, and so a healthy level of distance is necessary. Look to assemble a case file of sorts on yourself, starting with a document detailing that one concern you’ve decided upon. Immerse yourself in it, collate any evidence or notes, take some time to assess the barriers that may, or will, hinder your ability to make an objective argument to your opposition.

That is not to say that you need to completely detach yourself from, or, devalue your own experience, as that is what’s driving you. But, when you’re effectively challenging the opinions, decisions or reasoning of another party (who tend to be stubborn and averse to change), you cannot rely on personal emotions. You’re seeking a particular outcome, not gearing up to sling insults because things aren’t going your way. Bear in mind, many of the individuals you’re fighting aren’t known personally to yourself, and simply feel themselves to be doing their job (whatever your feelings may be on that matter).

I can almost hear the groans as I write this, but you’re also going to need to get used to paperwork. I’m not saying your own notes need to be of professional quality, but they do need to be easily understandable and well-researched.

Additionally, it’s always worthwhile familiarising yourself with your rights, regarding what information you are permitted to access about your concern. Although the relevant legislation is set to change very soon, it’s likely that the concept of a “Subject Access Request” will remain, even if it changes slightly. These often attract a fee, generally about £10 (the standard fee at law), but if you’re seeking health or educational records, they can run up to £50.

This is another reason why ensuring you know what it is you require from your endeavour is important, because although requesting the entirety of a particular set of records may be illuminating, it can often be difficult to wade through, and, all too regularly, highly distressing. “Listening at keyholes”, and all that…

Next, it’s very important to review your style and choice of language. This is often both your sword and shield. You can get away with some particularly strong wording if you keep your argument objective, and, where necessary, extremely… diplomatic. For example, a “well-intentioned” statement does not suddenly mean that it was not made negligently. Remember that what you’re doing, is offering someone else an extremely lengthy set of constructive feedback.

So, where are we in this battle for self-advocacy? We’ve decided upon a concern, sought to understand any issues relating to potential emotional distress or objectivity, gotten clued up on some of our rights regarding our personal information, and taken a moment to mull over our choice and style of language.

Next, it’s important to put aside some time to reconsider what it is that you want, whether you need to follow any formal procedures, as well as whether or not you need to request any further information. Take a breath at this stage, as you’ll have earned it. The rest can begin when you’re ready. Although there are often deadlines (sometimes quite strict), often the reality is that these are more flexible than they appear at face value.

As a side-note, although they are not always my immediate “go-to”, establishing SMART goals are quite helpful during this reflective period, at least before it becomes second nature. If you’re not already familiar with these, they’re worth investigating.

Finally, if I’ve not scared you off by this point, I think it’s important for me to make it clear that self-advocacy is a more accessible skill to develop than it may appear. Certainly, not everyone will start this journey with the gift of confidence, or the ability to put across their points or grievances by way of language, but do not be dissuaded.

Much of what tuition fees go toward has already done some of the work. Being here at university teaches us much more about writing and research than is easily recognised at times. Academic writing by itself is certainly an acquired taste, often without purpose outside of the confines of such a setting, but it’s not much of a stretch to refine this into something workable for the purposes of written advocacy.

As for the oral aspects of the craft, perhaps your extracurriculars have assisted you with skills that may lend themselves to oral advocacy? Or maybe you’ve been feeling indecisive about participating in such activities. Give them a go if you feel able: it’ll be worth it. Perhaps you’re filled with all kinds of anxiety as to what this entails, in which case you may be quite similar to myself. Take baby steps.

Wherever you start on this path less-trodden, however complex or seemingly impossible your situation may be, I promise you this – self-advocacy is a skill that does improve with repetition, irrespective of your preferred style. So, let’s get you heard. Take those first steps and don’t look back.

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