Reflections on Teaching Kids to Advocate for Themselves

children playing outside together

APH’s Director of Accessibility, Diversity, and Inclusion, Tai Tomasi, J.D., M.P.A. (she/her/hers), knows a thing or two about learning to be self-sufficient from an early age. One of 27 children adopted from around the world, Tai was born blind due to retinopathy of prematurity.

From the beginning, her parents made sure Tai had early intervention services, such as using tactile objects and preparing to read braille. By the time she was four years old, she was enrolled in her neighborhood public school and was involved in a variety of activities.

“My family was great about having me participate in things like outdoor sports and integrating me into everything, like when my sister would take me out rollerblading or I’d ride my bike around the neighborhood,” she says. “My school had an adaptive sports program so I did things like skiing and rock climbing, and I tried to be involved in everything I was interested in, like being on the swim team like a lot of my family was.”

Getting an Early Start on Independent Living

Tai was fortunate to have a family and a school that embraced diversity and inclusion – not just during Celebrate Diversity Month in April but all year long. But her parents also recognized that Tai would need to live independently someday, so they taught her life skills early on. Naturally, many of these skills are learned by working with Orientation & Mobility (O&M) specialists, but Tai’s parents taught her age-appropriate skills such as doing the dishes when she was six years old or babysitting when she was 10.

“I didn’t even realize at the time that I was learning,” Tai says, “but as I got older I figured out I was learning things I’d use later, which is really important.”

For example, through many years of working with blindness organizations before joining APH, she has seen students go off to college without knowing how to do their own laundry.

“I realize parents may feel like it’s easier to do it themselves,” Tai says. “But when their child who is visually impaired goes off to college, they can’t learn by watching other students. They need to learn for themselves how to do laundry, find a system for choosing clothes, and other independent living skills. The upfront work of teaching your kids to take care of themselves is really important.”

Learning Self-Advocacy to Prepare for Success

“When I was 15, I had no idea how to advocate for myself and it still isn’t always easy,” Tai admits. “I got my first job when I was 15, dressing up as a crab and waving my arms around outside a seafood restaurant. When the manager returned from a break and learned I was blind, she terminated me after three days. I was devastated and thought, ‘If I can’t be a crab, what can I be?’”

Fortunately, Tai’s mother reminded her she did, in fact, know how to advocate for herself, because she was already doing it. In fact, her mother had Tai attend her Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings starting when she was 14, so she could learn what it meant to advocate for herself, and talked to Tai about how she’d have to do the same when she went to college.

Students who are transitioning from K-12 to college no longer have an IEP, but must instead rely on – and advocate for – the rights they are granted under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

“Once kids get to college, there’s no magical plan – they are responsible for all their accommodations, and they need to learn how to do that,” Tai says. “They have to request help and put in documentation to the Student Disability Services Office and learn a little bit about the ADA, so they can understands what kinds of accommodations they can have.”

Making a Smooth Transition to College

Although Tai’s O&M specialist taught her about self-advocacy, she doesn’t recall specific discussions about her own Transition to College: Program Activity Guide for Students Who Are Blind or Low Vision to college. She notes that she’s surprised how many students she meets who don’t know how to talk about their disability or their needs.

“I would encourage parents to put their children in touch with mentors – positive role models who are blind,” she says. “That’s the best way they can prepare for what they’ll need to ask for in college and I think mentorship is a huge help in many situations.”

Of course, parents can and should instill confidence and encourage their children to self-advocate, but sometimes people – especially teens – may be more open to suggestions from someone who understands what it’s like to be visually impaired.

“I think reaching out to people who have had similar experiences is extremely helpful,” Tai adds. “One of the most important things anyone can do to help themselves maintain their confidence is to realize that they are enough, and talking to others can affirm that.”

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