Health Policy & Advocacy Articles & Resources

Ann Simmons
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor
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What Is Health & Self-Advocacy?

Health and self-advocacy, particularly in medical and educational settings, involves being assertive by speaking up, asking questions, and/or communicating needs. (1) Many people struggle with self-advocacy when they rely solely on others to communicate or solve their problems. However, self-advocacy can boost confidence and independence.

Allowing family members or friends to intervene and make decisions may be comfortable, but relying on others doesn't help an individual achieve independence. Still, asking a friend or family member to accompany them to an appointment or meeting can be appropriate if an individual thinks it may help them achieve their advocacy goals. (2)

People often feel the need to lend a hand to a person with an intellectual or physical disability. However, such help may be unwarranted and unwanted. (3) Although the intentions may be noble, offering to do things a person can do for themselves can be disrespectful. Some people may take a bit longer to open a door, but they may still want to try.

Health Policy & Advocacy — In The News
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Hepatitis C Drugs Will 'Strain Budgets' at Current Prices: Study

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Self-Advocacy Examples

Sometimes it's helpful to see how others handle self-advocacy. The examples below show how to express needs to another person respectfully to get the desired outcome: (4)

Patient and Doctor

A patient tells their doctor their medication makes them so drowsy they don’t feel safe after taking it. The doctor responds by telling the patient to keep taking it because it’s helping their mental health condition. The patient tells the doctor the medication makes them feel unsafe, and they want to try an alternative medicine that doesn't make them drowsy. A patient is an expert on how their own medication makes them feel, and they have the right to refuse it. 

Good health policy considers the patient's opinion. In this example, the patient demonstrates assertiveness and willingness to work with the provider by trying another medicine. The provider does the same by listening to the patient's needs. It's important that doctors and patients work together. It's also a good idea to use professionals who encourage self-advocacy as part of their health policies. 

Student and Teacher

A student with an intellectual disability has only attended a new school for a few weeks. Before test time, the teacher gives the exam to the student but doesn't direct them to a separate quiet area to take it. The student speaks up and informs the teacher that they need a quiet place to take their test due to being easily distracted.


Juan shares an apartment with a roommate, Jason. They agree to keep their food separate and prepare meals individually. When Jason runs out of snacks, he eats Juan’s chips and crackers. Juan keeps quiet at first but grows tired of being disrespected. Juan reminds Jason that they agreed to keep their food separate and eat only what they buy for themselves. 

These scenarios demonstrate individuals speaking up for themselves. In each case, they were clear about what they needed or wanted and explained why.

Self-Advocacy Tips for Adults

Becoming a self-advocate involves developing the skills to speak up and be heard. Adults can become better advocates by:

  • Developing self-confidence
  • Knowing their rights
  • Being persistent
  • Asking questions when appropriate

Adopting a can-do attitude may make the task easier. (5) Rather than thinking, “No one will listen,” positive self-talk and positive thoughts can build the confidence necessary to exercise self-advocacy.

Whether an individual requires accommodation due to a disability or has concerns about a medication their doctor prescribed, they have rights. Being effective as a self-advocate means researching those rights to learn about the benefits and limitations. (6) Knowing their rights helps people be assertive and give clear explanations when advocating for what they need.

Sometimes, it takes saying something more than once to get people to listen. If the person or organization won’t listen or respond to a request, it may be time to ask for backup. Family members, peers, and others can support self-advocacy, but that should be the individual’s choice.

Self-Advocacy Tips for Kids

Young people who speak up for their needs, wants, and rights become an example for their peers. Self-advocacy builds self-esteem, decision-making skills, and self-sufficiency. Learning self-advocacy skills can help young people transition into adulthood. Kids who want to be effective self-advocates can start by:

  • Understanding their rights
  • Practicing their advocacy skills
  • Being respectful

Understanding their rights provides young people with the information to support a request and help them get what they need. Adults can help kids understand their rights, enabling them to communicate their needs more clearly. If students need extra time to finish a classroom assignment, they may need to explain why. A student who understands that their individualized education plan (IEP) spells out the accommodations they're entitled to can feel confident in asking for more time. (7)

Practice makes perfect when it comes to being a self-advocate. Kids and teens can improve their advocacy skills by rehearsing what they plan to say in front of a mirror or with a family member.

A key aspect of self-advocacy is being respectful. (8) Anyone who feels ignored or unheard will experience frustration. However, rather than becoming aggressive, staying calm and listening to the other person’s point of view can ease tension. Instead of accusing the other person of not listening, it's better if an individual explains how not being heard makes them feel. Statements that blame others can get in the way during self-advocacy conversations. (9)

Self-advocacy can empower individuals who often feel ignored or disrespected and helps others understand the importance of treating every individual with dignity. The beauty of self-advocacy is that many organizations that stand up for the rights of others began with one person or a small group who dared to speak up for themselves and ignited a movement. (10)



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