The Spin Newsletter
Return to main SPIN page


What Does it Take to Be an Effective Advocate?
By:Lisa Simmons
Copyright 2003 Lisa Simmons


Most advocates become advocates not because they feel they have natural talents that would make them a good advocate, but because they are "drafted".

When your child, your student, or someone you care about is not being treated fairly you simply can't look the other way -- SOMEONE has to be their voice.

If you are one of these "drafted" advocates, don't despair. You can still be an extremely effective advocate. Let's take a quick look at the key ingredients to effective advocacy:

1. Focus on the Individual with Special Needs

An effective advocate is focused on what is truly important, the individual you are advocating for. It's not about "winning" the power struggle, it's not about "showing off" all the laws you've learned, and it's not about "punishing" the people you feel have let you or your child down. Are you focused on the needs of the person you're advocating for? Do you understand things like:

  • How he or she learns most easily.
  • His/her core values -- things that are vital to include in any futures planning.
  • What inclusion supports are critical for him or her to be successful.

2. A Constant Desire to Learn

An effective advocate understands that more is being learned all the time in the field of special needs. New types of technology are constantly being developed, new learning strategies are researched every day, information sharing is becoming more and more efficient. So to provide the best supports for the person you care about -- you need to stay tuned in to the information flow.

This can mean reading books, subscribing to newsletters, taking workshops, participating in online conferences, and doing research online or at your local library or resource center. The Web offers a wide range of resources from those that are diagnosis specific to those that take a wider view of the special needs field as a whole.

3. The Ability to Stay Organized

It doesn't help to do research or highlight sections of the regulations if you can't find what you need, when you need it. Having an organized notebook or filing system of advocacy information is absolutely vital in this world where the paper constantly multiplies! Don't let chaos and clutter threaten your advocacy efforts.

Visit this page for simple instructions on how to put together your own Advocacy Notebook.

4. Knowledge of the Law

I make the point in one of my workshops, that even the most confident and talented advocate cannot succeed without knowing the rules. Advocacy is like a 3 legged stool -- take away any of the legs (knowledge, skills, confidence) and the stool tips over.

You can't win a game where you don't know the rules and you can't be an effective advocate if you don't know your legal rights. If you are advocating for a student, study up on the laws regarding special education services. To assist an adult, study the laws regarding adult issues like accessibility, housing, and employment.

5. A Network of Personal Support

Few activities in life are as emotionally and physically draining as advocacy. The pressure is high because the quality of someone else's life rests in your hands and yet the "system" is set up so that at very few moments do you have total control. The result -- a struggle to use your skills to ensure that the group system does what is in the best interest of the person you care about.

It's not hard to see why advocates need a reliable system of emotional support. Making use of online communities, support groups, and family resources can often be the difference between success and burn-out.

6. Basic Computer Skills

In this day and age the most efficient way for any advocate to gain the information they need is online. Unfortunately, not every advocate feels comfortable with their computer. Learning some basic computer and/or Internet skills can make your journey quicker, easier, and less frustrating. So can setting up your computer so that it becomes an asset and not another hurdle. For example, software can allow you to listen to a web page article instead of reading it or dictate advocacy notes out loud and have your computer type them up for you.

Being an effective advocate can be a formidable challenge, but by arming yourself with the essential tools you can make this difficult task a little easier, a little less stressful, and a lot less lonely.


2003, Lisa Simmons

Lisa is the author of several eBooks offering ideas, resources and tools to help every special needs parent become a more effective Advocate for their child. For a free resource kit to help make the skills in this article a reality in your life, send a blank email to: