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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A is for Advocate

Advocate – (noun) a person who pleads for or on behalf of another; intercessor.

I’ve been learning a lot about advocacy in the past few months.  I guess I’ve always been an advocate for my kids (as most parents are) though I would not have called it that.  But in the past few months I’ve learned how to be a better advocate.  I’ve learned how important it is to consider their own wants and needs in addition to what I know is good for them.  I’ve learned how to balance my love and personal desires for them with their hopes and dreams, to morph those into tangible goals that I can promote.  I’ve also seen myself transforming into an advocate for those outside my family, into the more general sphere of issues that affect people with disabilities and their families.  It’s been a life-changing transformation for all of us in my family.

Now I am taking all the great advocacy tools I’ve learned: person centered planning, identifying strengths, creative strategies and problem solving, negotiating skills, networking and relationship building skills…the list goes on, and I’m passing them on to my kids.  I’ve found that as passionate and successful as I am in advocating for my sons, nothing will be better than imparting these skills to them so that they can successfully advocate for themselves and eventually others.  It’s been exciting to see the growth in my own advocacy skills but exhilarating to see my boys’ emerging skills evolve.

Cainan and Asher are 6 and 8 so, I’ve started out pretty simply with defining “Advocate” and beginning the dialogue on how we can stand up for what is best for someone or what is best for ourselves.  We’ve been having great conversations lately about their gifts and what they excel in.  It’s inspiring to watch them light up as I tell them what attribute I see them excelling in; we discuss how they can use that for their benefit or the benefit of others and how it might help in an area where they are not as strong. 

Lately, Cainan and I have been talking about how to explain his differences and disability to others.  Next school year, he will be attending a regular class in our neighborhood school—something that’s new for him.  And while I have every confidence he can be successful in this setting, I know things are going to come up as kids wonder why he is considerably different from them in some areas.  So, I’ve been helping him identify areas he thinks he’s not like “most people”.  We talk about why that’s not bad, just different and we’re talking about how we can explain that to anyone who wants to know about those differences.  We’ve also talked a lot about the ways he’s just like every other eight year old and how he can emphasize the things he has in common with his peers.

As much as I would love to step in and explain for Cainan any time someone asks him an inappropriate question, or implies there’s something wrong with him or treats him as an inferior, I know that I can’t.  I can’t be there all the time and even if I could, it would do him a great disservice to try and fight all his battles for him, leaving him defenseless without me.  Cainan is learning how to stand up for himself.  Because we are focusing on the positive, because we have explained his differences as just that—differences and not inability, because we are working on how to educate others appropriately, Cainan is going to be able to fight his own battles.  I’ve already seen it happening and I’ve wanted to shout with joy!

And I know, as Cainan becomes a more confident person and self-advocate, he will continue to grow into a compassionate person and advocate for others.  In fact, he was just telling me on Friday about a friend being teased in the bathroom by another classmate.  Cainan told me that he stood up to the other classmate and told him to leave his friend alone.  And here I have been worrying about Cainan being bullied but he’s already standing up for others being bullied.  What’s more, he did it appropriately, telling the classmate he was being mean and knew better, to stop teasing and leave the other boy alone.  That apparently took care of the situation but he told me if it hadn’t stopped he would have gotten a teacher.
There are more examples…Cainan expressing his direct wishes to be with kids his own age in a regular class at the same school as his brother during his IEP and then again, at his Placement meeting; watching him tell another child who was trying to boss him around that he knew what he was doing and had the teachers permission to do it; observing him explain to another friend that he has Prader-Willi Syndrome, which means his stomach tricks him and he has to be careful about what food he eats.  He’s getting it and I couldn’t be more excited to see it happening, to be a part of the process and to know that I’m helping equip him with the advocacy tools that will carry him through the rest of his life. 

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