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Using Our Words to Promote Self-Advocacy and Self-Identity

Feb 23 / Jen Latshaw

A few incidents have lately brought to light how important words can be to our students. One in particular happened during a virtual session with a middle-school-aged student with hearing loss.

Just last week, I was showing the student the new Lego set that features a figure with a cochlear implant. I asked the student how they thought other kids with hearing loss would react to seeing a toy with a cochlear implant, and the student stated that the kids would probably be happy to see a toy with the same “problem” as them.

The use of the word problem stuck out to me. The student called hearing loss a “problem.” This particular student struggles with self-advocacy skills and is still developing self-identity and self-advocacy skills with regard to hearing loss.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear “problem,” I automatically connect the meaning to something that needs a solution. This student finds something that is part of who they are and something that they physically have no control over to be a “problem.”

Of course, I go down an inevitable rabbit hole and wonder if someone referred to the student’s hearing loss as a “problem” before. Did someone make them feel like their hearing loss was an inconvenience? Can I blame them for struggling with their identity if other people are using the word “problem” to describe their hearing loss and they have adopted the phrase as their own?

I started to think about how different the student’s perspective on hearing loss could be if people had used different and less problematic language throughout their life. While this specific incident focuses on hearing loss, the thoughts can be applied to any differing ability or quality.

Let’s talk about some ways that we, as educators and service providers, can use what we say to promote stronger self-advocacy skills and self-identity in our students.

1. Find ways to insert positive language

If your students are using potentially negative language to describe their hearing loss or other needs, model more positive ways to say what they want to say. In the case of my student, instead of saying that other children would be happy to see a toy that had the same “problem” as them, maybe encourage them to use “difference” instead. Using the proper technological term can be more helpful.

In a similar situation, you could say something like: “Do you mean that the children would like to see toys that have hearing devices like they do?” Does anyone blink an eye if they hear, “Susie has glasses to help her see?” Likely not. So why not normalize how we talk about devices or learning tools?

Remember, our students truly listen to us. I can’t tell you how many times my students have said, “Ms. Jen, you SAID we can play this game after we finish today.”

They’re listening. We need to use our time with them to build them up. If you catch them doing great things, tell them! If my students ask for repetition, I praise them immediately. “I can absolutely repeat that for you. Thank you for letting me know you needed help. Wonderful job advocating for yourself.”

Not only are you praising them, but you’re also labeling the action (advocating) so that they can make the connection of what they need to do if they have a need.

2. Teach the technical language

Our students deserve to be able to express their needs on their own. Find ways to teach them specific language and terms that can help them express these needs. Though some of the language may seem challenging, expose the students to it anyway!

For littles, provide them with scripted phrases that they can use with their teachers. That could look like: “I didn’t hear you. Can you say that again, please?”

Learning these phrases and when to use them may take some practice, but the students begin to use them and find them helpful in both 1:1 sessions or the classroom.

For older students, that could look like simply teaching them what IEP-related words mean (accommodations, preferential seating, etc.). Once students understand these words, they can join into the IEP meetings and feel more comfortable asking for what they need in the classroom or in public.

One of my students has attended several IEP revision meetings this year. During a recent session, while we did an IEP term review, I asked the student how it felt to have a room full of adults talking about them while they sat right there during an IEP meeting.

The student shook their head and said, “Not great.” I explained that this answer was exactly why we were learning these IEP-related words. I wanted the student to understand the words and feel empowered to truly have a say about her educational needs.

3. Model Advocacy

Seeing advocacy encourages self-advocacy. Remember that our students are seeing and observing things all the time.

When older students attend IEP meetings, they need to see that what we say at the meetings holds value. When our students hear us taking their needs seriously and advocating for them, they start taking value in their own needs and identities.

For example, like most deaf educators, I’ve had countless teachers tell me that they have “loud voices,” so the students will be fine in their class. We know that’s not the case, and have to politely correct them and help them to understand why using the assistive technology that is listed in the IEP is not a suggestion, but a necessity. The entire IEP team needs to know why what we said is important.

The student also needs to see us model what it looks like to politely stand up to other people so that they can feel comfortable knowing that it’s okay to advocate for themselves.

Be firm, but direct with parents, teachers, and administrators when it comes to our students’ needs.

4. Be mindful of how we talk to our students’ families.

Our job as educators and service providers is to support our students, and one way to do that is part of that is to support their families.We can use our conversations with parents to model positive language.

For example, if the student has a low incidence difference like hearing loss, the family may not have been exposed to any other people with hearing loss. Maybe the family says “hearing impaired” or uses words like “problem” because they haven’t been taught any different. It’s okay to teach families and model positive language for them.

In addition, find ways to bring up positive things about the students. Why not tell the parents about all of the wonderful things that you are seeing? This could look like: “I wanted to tell you how proud I am of Johnny. His teachers have said that he has started asking for help when he needs it during class. He is doing such a great job being an advocate!”

Parents don’t always get to know exactly what happens at school, so sharing this positive information can encourage further conversation about advocacy with their child.

Let’s continue to find gentle, yet direct and professional ways to say what we need to families and think twice before we use words that could be hurtful. Having a positive relationship with families will help have a positive impact on our students.

The Takeaway

Regardless of your practice, this is a call to action for anyone working with students to remember that what you say matters. Whether you are in telepractice or are in a “brick-and-mortar” setting, use your time to share words that will impact people in a positive way.

©Photo by Bill Latshaw

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About the blogger

Jen Latshaw

Jen is an experienced Teacher of the deaf and hard-of-hearing. She graduated from The College of New Jersey, where she received a Bachelor’s of Science in Deaf Education, Elementary Education, and English, as well as a Master of Arts in Teaching.

She has worked as both a classroom teacher and an itinerant teacher, and has used a variety of communication methods to meet the unique needs of her students. After working in schools for several years, Jen made the switch to telepractice to spend more time with her family. Now, she enjoys having the opportunity to make connections with people across the country while teaching remotely.

After years of diverse teaching experiences, Jen has become passionate about helping students develop their self-advocacy and self-identity skills. She actively seeks creative ways to do so, and often develops her own teaching materials.

Jen feels that all of her students deserve to learn about their hearing loss. She wants to help them recognize the importance of expressing themselves so that their individual needs are met. Additionally, she wants her students to understand their own educational experiences and to feel included in decisions that are made.

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