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Fall 2002 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Self-Advocacy Skills: A Portfolio Approach

by Cathryn S. Krebs, TVI, Fairfax, VA
Reprinted with permission from Heldref Publications
Re:view, Volume 33, Number 4, Winter 2002

Self advocacy is knowing what you want, what you are entitled to, and how you can effectively achieve your goals (Brinckerhoff, 1994). I think that when students with visual impairments understand their individual strengths and needs, they will be more assertive and be empowered to find or create optimal learning environments. Students with visual impairments need to be able to explain their disability in everyday language, to list their strengths and needs, to make choices about how they learn best, and to communicate effectively with their peers and teachers regarding reasonable and appropriate accommodations.

As middle school students approach high school, we expect them to be more independent. I asked the four eighth-grade students in my vision resource room to begin a self-advocacy portfolio by writing "What I Know about My Visual Impairment" and "What I Would Like to Explore." All four had self-advocacy goals in their Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs). The following are some of their questions:

Visual Impairment Research

During basic skills class time with the teacher of students who are visually impaired, the four students used Zoomtext (an enlarged screen reader) and JAWS (a speech synthesizer) to research online their individual situations as described in their eye reports. We also used resource books, large diagrams, a tactile model of the eye, and a conversation with an ophthalmologist. Because all four students initially had difficulty explaining their visual impairments in everyday language, they were eager to improve their awareness of their disability. One student even stayed after school to work on this project!

Several students had specific questions they needed to ask their parents or guardians. Two of the four students were comfortable talking to their parents or guardians about their visual impairment. One student, who had had radiation as an infant, wondered if the cancer might possibly recur. Another student wanted to know how functional vision was related to visual acuity measurements.

Students practiced orally explaining their visual impairments to each other and their peers and shared drafts of their explanations. Then they wrote "What I Found Out About My Visual Impairment."

Vision Vocabulary Lists

From the information they had gathered, we compiled a list of specific words and definitions related to their individual impairments. Two of the four students had additional disabilities (spatial and memory problems and ADHD) that were important to understand in relationship to their visual impairments. Word lists included parts of the eye (e.g., macula, optic nerve, optic disc, retina) and other vision-related words (e.g., bilateral coloboma, congenital, cortical blindness, eccentric viewing, enucleation, null point, nystagmus, oculist, ophthalmologist, peripheral vision, prosthesis, radiation, scotoma, tumor, radiation, and visual overloading). We discussed the words on their lists individually with each student and how the word helped them to understand their functional vision.

Learning Strengths and Needs

After the research and vocabulary activities, students wrote about their learning strengths and needs. I encouraged them to talk to their peers, families, and school staff while compiling their lists. Sometimes there was negotiation if a strength or need did not seem realistic.

Letter Writing

Using all the information in their self-advocacy portfolios, the students wrote letters to their ninth-grade teachers describing their visual impairments, how they learn best, and what they needed to be successful in the classroom. The students verbalized what they would write, and I guided their formulations by asking questions. Those steps helped them to communicate more effectively. Excerpts from their letters speak for themselves.

Student One.

"When I was little, I had a tumor in my left eye, so the doctors had to remove it and replace it with a fake eye, called a prosthesis. On my right eye, I had a cataract and the doctors also removed that. I have low vision in my right eye. I can see everything, but I cannot read small print or see things far away like the chalkboard.

I am good at working on the computer and I am good at typing.... I am very good at socializing with people. Science is one of my weaknesses. Another one of my weaknesses is working too fast and not checking my work. I am very weak at editing my work. Sometimes I need help."

Student Two.

"I only have central vision and cannot see on the sides. It is difficult for me to locate things and impossible to read print. I can see the letter but too many things on a page are confusing. I use Braille `n Speak, which is a Braille notetaker. I also have some spatial problems like finding where I am and copying things. I sometimes have trouble locating things visually, but once I find what I'm looking for, I can see it clearly.

"I love to write, but spelling and comprehension are not my strong suits. I take tests orally and use a Braille copy when there is time. It is easier for me to concentrate when there are no distractions.... Before I take a test I like to get study guides in advance so I can be prepared. It helps me to know a week in advance."

Student Three.

"I had some vision until the age of nine.... I've had several different surgeries to attempt to bring back my vision, but all of them were unsuccessful. Having a Braille copy gives me that very same independence (as the sighted kids). However, my independence is limited in some respects, such as when the class watches a video, when there is a mostly visual project, or simply when the teacher draws diagrams on the board. Having a person available with good description skills is very helpful."

Student Four.

"I can see most objects clearly, but not the details, and I can also see colors. However, I cannot see things that are tiny, far away, or faintly printed. My field of vision is impaired, so sometimes I have to turn my head to see things. If you cover one eye and slightly close the other, you may be able to get a feeling for what I can see. Sometimes I get stressed out, so it helps when I know long term assignments, including novels, and tests ahead of time."

Follow-Up Activities

After the letter-writing activity, we talked about ways to keep written records of "what works for me" in different classroom settings and ways to optimize learning styles with a variety of teaching styles. Talking to high school students with visual impairments, being around people with a positive, "can-do" attitude, and role-playing helped to give the eighth graders practice using a variety of strategies. Growing from mistakes, solving problems collaboratively, and learning to give and accept praise and criticism occurred as a result of this project.

This student-centered project, which could be used in a variety of school settings and with a wide range of disabilities, will continue throughout high school and will provide important documentation of student growth. Revision will occur at least annually, or on an as-needed basis; the students will select the contents for each section. The self-advocacy portfolio serves as the basis for the IEP transition plan, which focuses on career information including interests; strengths and capabilities; challenging, yet attainable vocational goals; and activity-based goals. Adding photos or videos; notes on observations of mentors in areas of interest; ideas about internships; comments by teachers, parents, rehabilitation workers, and employers; and selected journal entries related to vocational goals would strengthen the portfolio.


Students with visual impairments need to know how to assess themselves, set educational and vocational goals, understand what accommodations work best for them, learn how to use resources and make requests, and determine how to solve the inevitable problems that will arise in high school. Ongoing instruction in self-advocacy skills helps students prepare for success as independent adults in the work world, as evidenced by these evaluative comments made by the four students at the end of the first year of the project.

Student One. "Different things work with different teachers. I am not afraid to ask for the things I need to learn."

Student Two. "When people look at me they sometimes don't believe that I am blind and have many challenges. My teachers have tried to describe my vision to others, but I think it is better if I explain my own disability."

Student Three. "Job exploration is very important, but self-motivation is the key."

Student Four. "I get this very good feeling when I feel like I'm independent. In real life you have to step out for yourself and say, `This is what I need help with.'"


Brinckerhoff, L. C. (1994). Developing effective self-advocacy skills in college-bound students with learning disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 29, 229237.

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