​Self-Advocacy for Women with Paralysis: Tips and Strategies for Empowerment

Posted by Lauren Presutti in Life After Paralysis on April 13, 2021 # Lifestyle

In my previous blog, we explored the importance of self-advocacy. Although speaking up for oneself can be challenging no matter your personal identity, there are unique considerations for women living with paralysis. This population faces double minority status, experiencing disability oppression combined with gender inequalities. We previously explored some of the stereotypes and resulting consequences that women with paralysis might find challenging, and now we turn to explore strategies that may help you strengthen your self-advocacy skills.

Consider how the following strategies might help you become bolder, more confident, and ultimately more empowered as a woman living with paralysis.woman in wheelchair on dock with dog

Strengthen Self-Awareness – What Are Your Needs?

Strengthening self-awareness is a great starting point to enhance self-advocacy because it helps you understand what your needs are, which is necessary for self-advocacy. How can we possibly advocate for having our needs met if we don’t exactly know what our needs are? Here are some reflection questions to ask yourself to strengthen your self-awareness.

Questions about your needs:

  • What exactly are your needs for school? For employment? For healthcare? For your social life?
  • What do you need in order to live your best life as a woman with paralysis?
  • How does your disability impact your needs? What are some important considerations?
  • Why is it important for you to have your needs met? What motivates you?
  • How do you communicate or advocate about your disability? What does that look like?
  • Have you had experience advocating before, or would this be something new to you?

Broader questions:

  • What does your disability mean to you? How do you identify as a woman with paralysis?
  • What are your beliefs about people with disabilities? About women with disabilities?
  • How do you relate or not relate to stereotypes about women with disabilities?
  • What are your core beliefs and values as a woman with a disability?
  • How much or how little does your disability impact who you are as a whole person?

Develop a Vision – What Are Your Goals?

After you have a clear understanding of what your needs are, the natural next step is developing a vision. Most people have a very difficult time advocating for something when they don’t have a clear idea of what they are trying to accomplish. On the other hand, when people have a clear vision for what they need, why they need it, why it is imperative for a person’s safety, quality of life, or equal access to something, they are usually much more successful in accomplishing their self-advocacy goals.

Some questions to consider are:

  • What do you want this person to grant you? An accommodation? A policy exception? Equal treatment? An opportunity for inclusion?
  • What information do you need from this person?
  • What is the ideal outcome you hope to achieve in this conversation?
  • How will you explain what your goal is? Will you practice explaining it in advance?
  • Why is your goal important? How will the achievement of this goal impact your life?
  • How will this goal help fulfill your needs? “If I achieve this, I will be able to…”
  • How will you respond if you do not achieve your ideal outcome? How might you cope with the opposition?

Acknowledge Obstacles

When we are blinded to the barriers that exist, it can certainly make them much more difficult to overcome. Sometimes talking about disability barriers can be difficult or painful for people. They may find themselves wanting to only focus on the positives to sugarcoat things or put a positive spin on something. It can be really hard to have these conversations, and we sometimes don’t want to acknowledge disability barriers if they bring up negative feelings or reactions. But what I have found to be true through my experience as a mental health therapist helping people and families affected by disabilities is that ignoring the obstacles doesn’t make them go away, just like ignoring our emotions doesn’t make them go away. Acknowledging our obstacles helps us take more control over them. It positions us to carefully plan around the barriers and develop solutions for attacking what stands in your way.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What are the obstacles that pose a threat to having your needs met? Lack of resources, people of authority, laws or policies, or something else?
  • Do you know others who face the same obstacles? How have they overcome these?
  • What knowledge or guidance might you need to face these obstacles? What are some possible solutions?
  • If the obstacles cannot be changed, what else are your options? What other avenues can you explore?

Remember Your Strengths – What Are You Good At?

Every single person has internal strengths and resources that can help them in their self-advocacy efforts. If you struggle to identify what strengths you have, you may find it helpful to talk with your family and friends who know you best, reflect on feedback from a teacher or a mentor, or work with a counselor to discover what some of your strengths are. Below are some examples of strengths you might have that would be particularly useful for self-advocacy. Consider if any of the following resonate with you. Which ones do you feel the best match your personality? What other strengths might you have not listed below?

Determination – not giving up even if you struggle with self-advocacy

Perseverance – being able to continue trying even with delayed success

Resiliency – being able to bounce back when faced with opposition or difficulties

Creativity – developing solutions for overcoming barriers in unique ways

Communication – being able to articulate what your needs are

Assertiveness – being able to speak up about your needs, even with people of authority

Confidence – proudly communicating about yourself to other people

Writing skills – producing strong letters/emails of advocacy to access what you need

Resourcefulness – piecing together different things that might help you solve problems

Empathy – being able to understand the other person’s point of view when advocating

There are numerous strengths that you might be holding, and the list goes on and on – whatever your strengths are, you can find ways to bring them into the picture when you are in the role of a self-advocate.

Believe in Your Self-Worth – You Deserve to Have Your Needs Met!

One of the most important tips for self-advocacy is to always believe in your self-worth. Always remember that you are worthy of having your needs met. Living with paralysis is a part of your life that requires accommodations, but this part of your identity does not make you any less deserving of equal access and opportunities. You should never apologize for what your needs are. Sometimes, when we experience setbacks, anxiety, frustration, or disappointment, it can help us pay attention to our thinking patterns. Are you feeling extra negative inside or having any self-defeating thoughts about your worth? If so, practice reminding yourself of some positive affirmations that can help you refocus and shift your thinking.

Some positive affirmations might include:

I am a whole, complete person. My disability does not change that.

I deserve to have my needs met, and I will advocate for what I need.

I might not have all the answers right now, but I will continue working to overcome barriers.

I will advocate for myself so that I can live my very best life.

I deserve equal opportunities, inclusion, fair treatment, positive relationships, and respect.

I am more than my disability. Paralysis is just one part of my life.

It’s okay to face opposition. Not everyone will understand. I will keep trying.

I have a strong, powerful voice. My voice matters. I deserve to be heard.

Seek Out Helpful Resources – You Don’t Have to Face Things Alone!

Connecting with others within the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation or other organizations can be a huge source of comfort as you continue learning about self-advocacy. Lean on the advice and support from others in your shoes. Peer-to-peer support is one of the most valuable sources of coping for many people. Being able to relate to others and establish a strong sense of belonging within a community can also help you increase your confidence and empowerment skills, which can strengthen your ability to self-advocate.

If you have questions or if I can be a resource for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

To learn about River Oaks Psychology, visit www.riveroakspsychology.com and follow River Oaks Psychology on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.