The definition of thriving is “to develop well, to grow, prosper and flourish.” I started to consider what factors have allowed this to happen in my life. The first major influence is the group of people who have taught me how to thrive and then supported me to achieve over time.
This group of people includes my parents, siblings, doctors, teachers, physical therapists, and other professionals who truly saw who I was even though the disability was present. These people have supported me to develop the skills I needed to thrive in academics, in a full-time job, and in my community.
In some ways this article is a mini thank you letter to those people. In another way it is a call to raise awareness. Key people supported me by setting expectations, serving as role-models, coaches, and general supporters – those who gave me encouragement to try, be tenacious, and persevere.
While I was growing up, I had the feeling that I could do anything with the right tools and support. My family and then later a broader community made me feel empowered. Empowerment is defined as “a process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s own life.” [i]
My parents created the foundation of empowerment by setting clear expectations. I was expected to work hard and to perform to the best of my ability. The fact that I had Spastic Cerebral Palsy (CP) did not excuse me from achieving academically, participating in activities, or fulfilling responsibilities.
If I could not perform something physically, I was taught to find a way to adapt. If I did not understand something, I was taught to ask questions with the intent to understand. If I needed help or support of some kind, I was taught to find the right people and ask for the support I needed. Learning how to ask questions and learning ways to effectively engage people are the building blocks of self-advocacy.
Self-advocacy is frequently defined as “an effort to speak up and work on one’s own behalf to make positive decisions and/or to positively influence situations .”[ii] In both my adolescence and adulthood, I frequently have to speak up to get what I need. Part of that process often includes engaging a group of people to make necessary changes.
Performing well academically was always important to me. I struggled in mathematics. During my junior year in high school, I was in danger of not performing well on a statewide exam. I found myself turning to the well ingrained principles of:
- If you don’t know something, ask questions, and
- If you need help, find the right people or resources, and ask for help to achieve your goal.
I recall approaching my math teacher from my sophomore year. I requested his support and time to tutor me on the math concepts I was missing. I also approached my eleventh grade math teacher. I requested his help using the same rationale. I sought support from people who had the expertise and the willingness to make sure I succeeded.
Because these two teachers saw my determination to pass this exam, they became committed to helping me achieve this goal. Both agreed to work together to help me pass the exam that was only weeks away.
They spent hours with me, tutoring me, reviewing key principles, giving me practice questions, reviewing my mistakes and explaining where I made the mistakes, all in an effort to ensure that I would perform well.
What happened? I performed well on the exam. In fact, I received an 84 as a final grade; on an exam where it was questionable if I would pass. Yet, something even bigger happened. I learned what can result when people are willing to engage and support someone with a high level of determination and the passion to succeed. I saw and experienced what effective advocacy can do.
The foundations of empowerment and self-advocacy are established and fostered from the people and the environments we engage with the most. As parents, teachers, friends, and neighbors, let’s help children and youth with and without disabilities thrive as a result of high expectations and a willingness to engage.
[i] Itzhaky, Haya; Alan York, “Empowerment and Community Participation: Does Gender Make a Difference?.” Social Work Research. National Association of Social Workers. 2000.
[ii] Schreiner, Mary B. “Effective self-advocacy: what students and special educators need to know.” Intervention in School & Clinic. Sage Publications Inc. 2007.