How to Advocate for Disabled Students

By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis

How to Advocate for Disabled StudentsHow can you empower disabled students to feel in control and help them recognize their strength and fortitude? Remind them that it’s the truth!

For many disabled students, certain tasks require more effort and planning than they do for some of their classmates. Though these moments add challenge to daily life, they also prepare students to harness their tenacity and ingenuity to find creative solutions to other challenges!

Disabled students deserve to be recognized for their skills, strengths, and hard work, and they deserve accommodations that help them thrive and navigate difficulties. By creating an inclusive environment and putting effort into developing the self-advocacy of disabled students at your school, you will elevate your school culture for all students.

My early years learning about disabilities

I had the pleasure of growing up with a beloved aunt, my Aunt Chatsy (Concetta). Aunt Chatsy had cerebral palsy, a neurological motor disability that hindered her ability to balance, move fluidly, and control movements. As children, my siblings, cousins, and I were raised with stories about how our aunt showed the world that her disability was an ability . . . and she was always up to prove it! She was an amazing, independent person who made no apologies for asking for help when she needed it so that she could live a full life. We loved riding on her lap in the wheelchair, we idolized her cool contraptions, and we made faces at others in the community who we perceived as judging her jagged movements.

As a school counselor, I have often wished that all my students could have grown up with an Aunt Chatsy. In helping raise me, my aunt developed my sense of empathy, compassion, and service. And while it might be easy to assume that these life lessons were learned by watching how the world treated my aunt, the truth is that I learned them by seeing how my aunt treated others, and the way she lived by these characteristics. Having her in my life was a privilege that built the foundation for my career in counseling.

Building your environment

As a counselor, I asked myself how I could advocate for disabled students to help them experience life as they desire and deserve, and also how I could build a space where all students could discover my Aunt Chatsy’s character and benefit from her tutelage. The answer to both questions is advocacy and inclusion. At its heart, true advocacy for disabled students involves three key elements:

1. An inclusive environment

Ensuring your school takes swift action when there are reports of teasing or commentary related to a student’s disability is critical. Just as important, however, is ensuring an appropriate modeling of compassion by staff. Teachers can form groups that include all students and create opportunities for students to learn from and lean on each other. Classroom materials should include diverse depictions that help all members of the school community feel seen and valued. Administrators must work to create spaces that respect and accommodate the needs of all students.

2. An emphasis on rights

All students can benefit from learning about the Americans With Disabilities Act ( In doing so, students can learn the important work disabled individuals have done through history to achieve the rights they deserve. The ADA can be emphasized and embedded in lessons to emphasize development of all human rights.

3. An educated staff

The more educated school staff are about disabilities, the more effectively they can create an environment that works for every student. When schools are constructed for all individuals and all abilities, some of the mental work is relieved for disabled students and staff. Many disabled students are tired of having to ask for help, and a more informed staff will reduce the need for disabled students to constantly self-advocate for their inclusion.

What do we learn?

Because my aunt had her own job, I could not bring her to work with me every day to help me teach my students important lessons! So in my first few years of counseling, I thought about how I could bring her mentorship into my work. I meditated on how Aunt Chatsy loved it when people:

  • asked her about her disability so that she could teach them
  • knew about her disability and shared their own stories and experiences with disabilities
  • advocated for her
  • recognized her self-advocacy
  • gathered with loved ones and enjoyed life

What my aunt taught me about resilience was that it is not something people call upon only during hard times, or only to overcome a single experience. Resilience, to her, was a way to live life. Resilience is being determined to take advantage of every moment, to appreciate others, and to view challenges as momentary obstacles that will resolve with persistence.

When our Aunt Chatsy passed, my brother and I started a memorial nonprofit in her honor called I’ll Go Too ( “I’ll go too” was the phrase we heard from her most often. She may not have been able to drive, but her spirit was moved to experience the world with her family every chance she got! No matter where we were going, Aunt Chatsy was always up to come along. “I’ll go too!” she would say with excitement—and in turn, we knew her presence would add enthusiasm and fun. Like Aunt Chatsy herself, we never pretended she was not disabled—but we always saw her as the whole and wonderful person she was. I hope all my students learn from Aunt Chatsy’s legacy as a person who lived fully and joyfully.

If you’d like to learn more about my Aunt Chatsy and need a lesson for your students, check out my Loom here: .

Stephanie Filio, author of Responding to Student TraumaStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

Responding to Student TraumaStephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.

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