In middle school, I told my mom I didn’t think I was very good at standing up for myself and wanted to work on that. I didn’t realize, though, that the seeds of self-advocacy were being planted all around me.
Before I knew I was autistic, I knew I was dyslexic. For ten years, I went to a school for students with learning disabilities that subtly infused self-advocacy into everything they taught. I couldn’t see the seeds, even as they broke ground, but my self-advocacy sprouted in little things that really weren’t little at all.
I quit extracurricular activities when they became too much. I wore Halloween costumes I liked when no one else got them. I skipped school dances when I knew they would hurt me in ways I didn’t have words for at the time. Then I used those same self-advocacy skills to discover my autism, seek out a diagnosis, and fight for the support I needed. It was this experience that finally allowed me to see it: I was a self-advocate.
That identity only strengthened in college. I continued to advocate for myself by fighting to create my own major about disability after years of being taught to distance myself from it. This led me to co-founding my college’s first disabled student organization for my own well-being almost as much for our community’s well-being.
For me, sometimes self-advocacy gets lost in the shuffle of disability advocacy. My life is very focused on advocating for friends, colleagues, and the disability community at large. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but sometimes I forget self-advocacy is not just a foundational step in the journey towards broader advocacy. Yes, I’m only a broader advocate because I know how to advocate for myself, but that doesn’t mean that self-advocacy stops.
Even after all the growth, I still sometimes fail to see where self-advocacy shows up in my life. But unlike middle school, I have the ability to remind myself self-advocacy sustains me through everything I do: advocating for the accommodations I needed in college, stimming shamelessly, being open with my loved ones about what I’m going through and what I need, standing up for myself when doctors dismiss or mistreat me, seeking support because I cannot do this alone.
I have, from time to time, bought into the fallacy that self-advocacy means doing everything alone, but it’s just that — a fallacy. We aren’t meant to navigate this world on our own, and there is no shame in needing each other just as much as we need ourselves. What good is being the captain of your team if you’re the only one on it?
But don’t get me wrong: you have to start somewhere, and being a team of one is an excellent place to start. Self-advocacy starts with you — with you truly believing in your inherent worth.
Some of the seeds I couldn’t see in middle school were skills: how to identify what you need, how to have tough conversations, etc. But the most important seeds were the seeds of self-love. The all encompassing message I received growing up that everyone, myself included, was worthy and capable was what truly allowed me to be a self-advocate. When you believe you have every right to things like happiness, peace and well-being, it becomes immensely easier to move through the fear inherent to speaking up. Self-advocacy isn’t about eradicating your fears or always feeling totally confident. It’s about knowing you are worth the risk and believing that whatever happens, you’ve done a good thing for yourself.
I remind myself of that when I need to stand up for myself. It’s what I remind my friends, my family, and the people I work with when they need encouragement. It’s what I hope to convey to those who read my writing or find me on social media. Self-advocacy matters; it makes the world a better place, but more importantly, brings each and every person closer to the joy they deserve.
I know self-advocacy isn’t always easy, but you have everything you need to be the best version of yourself within you. Foster it and let it grow. Lean on those around you, but be the captain of your own team. Don’t worry about messing up, don’t be afraid of backsliding, and allow yourself to forget and remember along the way. Know that self-advocacy isn’t a perfect or linear journey. But if you devote just a little of yourself to the radical act of self-love that is your self-advocacy journey, you’re doing something good. And that is something to be proud of.
Harper McKenzie is an autistic young adult, writer and disability advocate. She graduated from Emerson College in May 2021 with a Bachelors in Creative Writing and Disability Studies, and plans to pursue a Masters degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs. Currently, she works as a Success Coordinator at Northeastern University. You can find her talking about her experiences as a disabled woman on social media @TheHarperMcKenzie.