Nov 21, 2011

GMU Conference Emphasizes Importance of Self-Advocacy for College-Bound Disabled Students

A recurring theme among presenters at the Future Quest Conference held over the weekend at George Mason University was the importance of learning self-advocacy skills while still in high school.

Billed as a "biennial" college and career forum for students with disabilities, Future Quest 2011 brought together well over 1000 students, parents, and local experts on a range of disability-related topics many of which focused on transition to college.

“In college, to advocate effectively for yourself, you will need to learn about yourself, your disability, and laws that ensure your rights,” said Dr. Allison Butler, Disability Support Services Counselor from Northern Virginia Community College. “You need to be able to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and you need to know the kinds of accommodations that work best for you.”

Judy Bass, a Certified Educational Planner specializing in students with learning differences, agreed and added, “Students need to understand and be able to discuss their disabilities.”

Because disability laws that apply in high school don’t necessarily apply in college, parents and students need to shift gears during the high school years.

In her session, Ms. Bass outlined the need for up-to-date documentation and specified the kinds of testing required for students to receive accommodations in college—usually within three years of entry. She also suggested that because colleges differ enormously in terms of available support, students with disabilities need to take care that the colleges they are considering have appropriate services and can meet their needs.

Both Ms. Bass and Dr. Butler strongly suggested that students should be made aware of all test results in order to be able to speak knowledgeably about their disabilities with college faculty and staff. At some point, parents need to begin the process of turning over advocacy responsibilities to their children, who must able to speak for themselves once they reach college.

But the case was most effectively made by the conference keynote speakers, Danielle Fortney, a James Madison University graduate and special education teacher, and Josh Anton, a business student at Northern Virginia Community College. Both have ADHD and learning disabilities.

Before an attentive audience of over 600 parents and students, Ms. Fortney and Mr. Anton outlined their respective journeys navigating the transition to college. Both stressed the need for self-awareness and underscored the power of self-advocacy.

“There is no IEP in college, so you must have all the information you need before you go off to college,” said Ms. Fortney, who found her first year at JMU challenging. “You need to check out the office of disability services, learn about available resources, and use them. Reduce your course load if necessary and be aware of distracting social issues.”

“If you have the will to succeed, the infrastructure will follow,” added Mr. Anton. “In the end it’s up to you. You are the definition of your own destination.”

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