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Learn more about LDs and ADHD, and find helpful information and insights on the assessment, diagnosis and management of these learning and attention challenges. 

Did you have accommodations in high school?

Extra time on tests, a quiet testing space, extensions on assignments, or the use of assistive technology like speech-to-text software or a screen reader, are typical accommodations in high school classrooms. You may have had teachers who were understanding and supportive of your challenges with disabilities, whether physical or invisible like ADHD, Learning Disabilities or anxiety, and accommodated to varying degrees. However, it’s likely that the entire process of asking for and receiving those accommodations, which culminate in a formal, signed Individual Program Plan (IPP, IEP or LSP depending on your school board), was accomplished solely by your parents and teachers through rounds of calls, emails and meetings, with little input from you. 


That is not how it works in post-secondary.

Accessing academic accommodations and support at the post-secondary level is significantly different to the way in which you received academic accommodations and support in high school. One of the key differences is that in the post-secondary landscape, the student plays a key role as a self-advocate. The student, not the parent, has the responsibility to initiate and be involved in the academic accommodation process. Many high school students with disabilities can feel especially overwhelmed by both the transition to post-secondary itself, as well as to their new role as a self-advocate. This sudden transition from being just a recipient of accommodations to now orchestrating them, can be both challenging and stressful.


What is the Duty to Accommodate?

In the post-secondary environment, increased independence and privileges are balanced by increased personal and academic responsibilities. The provincial legislation that establishes the Duty to Accommodate on the post-secondary institution includes a whole array of rights and responsibilities held by all the key stakeholders, including the students themselves. In some ways, accessing accommodations and supports at the post-secondary level is easier, and the range of ways to reduce learning barriers, more comprehensive and consistent than in high school simply because the legislation governing the processes is different. But it all begins with you, the student, being confident enough to start that ball rolling.


What do I need to say?

Consider how comfortable you are with the following skills:

  • contacting the accessibility office either by phone, email or in-person
  • meeting with an accessibility advisor
  • discussing the impact of your disability
  • describing which accommodations best support your learning
  • approaching an instructor or professor to discuss your accommodations
  • explaining accommodations to group members on collaborative projects
  • advocating for yourself when difficulties arise


These communication skills are critical to your success as a student with a disability.  If you did not have the opportunity to develop or hone these in high school or in some other setting prior to transitioning to post-secondary, then you need to practice them. Work with your parents or friends to role-play through various scenarios. Perhaps the guidance counsellor, learning support staff or one of your teachers at high school will set aside some time to work with you. Reach out to academic or self-advocacy coaches for practice sessions.

Become comfortable with talking about what you need to be a successful student.  You have the right to accommodations, you have the responsibility to ensure them.


About the Author:  Dr. Ana Pardo is passionate about empowering high school students with disabilities to advocate for themselves at the post-secondary level. She is the head of Academic Accommodation Advising – Bridge the Gap and has spent the last thirty-five years of her career examining disability, diversity and equity issues. Most recently, she has been the Director of Access and Inclusion Services at Mount Royal University and was previously the Director of Accessibility Services at the University of Calgary.

We know that even as adults, self-advocacy can be really tough. Whether we are explaining to our school principal that we need more supplies, the house painter that the job needs to be done this month, not next, or our physician that a medication is not working for us, we are advocating for ourselves.  It can be hard getting others to listen, but we also know that it is necessary and provides a sense of power over our daily lives.

In our classrooms, self-advocacy for students goes hand-in-hand with metacognition, the personal awareness of how we learn. First, this requires an acknowledgement on the part of the teacher of the diversity of learning, recognizing that we all learn differently.  Second is the understanding that self-advocacy is a life skill which is important to teach; the bonus being that it makes classroom management easier.


Modelling self-advocacy in the early grades

As always, good teaching begins with modelling.  In the early grades, we instruct our students about classroom routines such as coming to the story circle or settling in after recess.  Model for your students what works best for you.  

“I’m most ready for reading circle when the papers are off my desk so I can see where our reading book is.” 

Have them each tell what works best for them for coming to the reading circle.  They will have a lot of different ideas:  

“When my shoelaces are tied.”  

“When I’ve checked the visual agenda.”  

“When my learning buddy gives me the signal.”  

Once your students have established what works best for each of them, you can just provide statements that remind them.  “I am clearing the papers off my desk to get ready for story time. Is everybody doing what they need to do to get ready?  Great! Now we’re ready to move to our circle.”  This takes the pressure off you and puts the power and responsibility where it belongs, in your students’ hands.


When they reach upper elementary

In upper elementary grades, as students begin moving from class to class, teachers can model the same technique.  At the beginning of each term, set the tone of accepting diversity in learning.  Then model self-advocacy in your classes.  You can begin saying something like:

“It works best for me if you all know what we are going to do in class, so I’ll put a mini-schedule for each period on the board.  That will give you a minute to decide what you need to do so you’re ready to learn.” 

That can be followed by a class discussion of the different ways students can demonstrate that they are ready to learn.  It might seem like this takes too much extra time, but you’ll make that time back, because when students feel you are allowing them some control over their learning, you’ll spend much less time in organizing them and in managing the behaviour that results when students don’t feel they have power over their own learning.

When self-advocacy is modelled this way by teachers and expected of all students in a class, it becomes the norm for everyone.  It creates the expectation that everyone has not only responsibility for their learning but has power over their own learning.  It creates a culture of acceptance that means that students with special needs feel that they, too, have power over their learning. 


Stepping up self-advocacy in high school

In junior and senior high, many students come to us with specific needs that must be individually accommodated.  In my experience, most teenagers are not very skilled in self-advocacy.  Most, but not all.  I had a first-hand lesson in self-advocacy one day as a tiny blond tornado whirled into my office.  Her jacket was half off, one shoelace was undone and her backpack was exploding papers, pencils and lunch bags in her wake. As she arrived, she waved some papers at me and said, “I have an IPP and my mom said you would help me.”  Her statement was so unique that it opened my eyes to the fact that the other teens I worked with were not advocating for themselves.  

With that insight, I realized that I’d been advocating for my students instead of giving them the power to do it themselves.  So, I changed my practice.  When students needed extra time, a quiet place to write, or to complete only some instead of all the math problems, we would rehearse together the conversation that needed to happen.  First, my students needed to understand that the format of the conversation needed to be respectful, but also that expectations needed to be clear.  They needed to understand, themselves, that they were not asking for a favour, they were explaining the need for appropriate accommodations so they could engage in learning.  We made sure the conversation always started with some version of, “I learn best when…”  or “I can show what I know if I can…”  Once the conversation was ready, we would make an appointment with the teacher.  I always went with the student for the first meeting and always offered to go to the next one.  Surprisingly, that was never necessary!  It seemed that once my students knew they could advocate for themselves, they were more than happy to do it independently.

Independence with self-advocacy is enhanced when teachers set the tone early in the semester or school year.  Acknowledging to the whole class that everyone learns differently and that some people may need accommodations for their learning will open the door for students to approach teachers to explain what they need.  One university instructor I know does it in his introductory lecture. Then he invites anyone who requires learning or testing accommodations to meet privately with him to plan what will work best for the student’s learning.  He also reminds students that it is very hard to provide accommodations if he doesn’t know about them until twenty minutes before the final exam.  He gets a great response from students who need accommodations – and he doesn’t run around in the minutes before exams anymore trying to match accommodations to student needs.  It’s a method that works at the university level and it works just as well at junior and senior high school levels.


Self-advocacy is for every learner

Teaching self-advocacy starts with the acknowledgement of learning diversity.  Everyone learns differently, not just those with special needs.  Teachers who model self-advocacy demonstrate that it is important for all of us, that we all require different things to meet our needs sometimes and it is acceptable to ask for and expect to receive these. It paves the way for responsibility and accountability in the learning process. When we create a learning culture where self-advocacy is the norm and when we model that accommodations are necessities, not favours, we enable all our students to seize the power for their own learning. 

From a parent’s perspective…

Self-advocacy is a skill that needs to be learned, but developing this skill by those with a Learning Disability (LD) and/or ADHD can be a real challenge that takes a lot of time and practice.

When my daughter with LD was young, I was her main advocate. I learned how to work with educators and other professionals and would speak up on her behalf. But, I knew that as she got older, she would need to become her own advocate.

Helping her learn self-advocacy skills had to be a priority for us if she was to become a confident adult. Getting there was much more difficult and time consuming than I anticipated.


What are the first steps?

For us, the first step was helping her to understand what her specific challenges were and what supports and accommodations helped her to be successful. Encouraging her to take those initial self-advocacy steps came next. She was diagnosed in grade 4 and that year was largely focused on us simply getting our heads around the diagnosis and what it meant. Beginning in grade 5 and in consultation with the school, we started to put actions in place with an IPP

Those first steps were very simple: just learning how to ask for help. For example, during a test, she would cough when the teacher walked by if she needed clarification about a question on the test. However, despite the agreement of the teacher to use this prompt to get his attention, he never responded to any of her “coughs”.  Even when I spoke with the teacher immediately before the tests and he reiterated his support for that action, he never responded. We then tried having her drop her pencil as he walked down the aisle of desks. That too didn’t lead to acknowledgement or support, despite the fact that test accommodations were clearly outlined in her IPP.  First brave steps even if they didn’t quite work out.

We also began to focus on having her participate in class by raising her hand and offering an answer or asking a question in class. This did not come easily as she was far more comfortable staying under the teacher’s radar and giving the illusion that she was busy working at her desk. Many weeks we would get to Friday before her hand went up.

In grade 6, at a new school, things were a bit better but my daughter was still hesitant to speak up. We even role-played at home as to what she should say when she needed support. We would practice specific asks for assistance, but still met with limited success. She was hesitant to speak up and the teacher was often more focused on other students with their own needs rather than supporting her initial self-advocacy attempts.  


How does self-advocacy change in Junior High?

Junior High, with different teachers for several subjects, and a resource teacher in the school, provided new challenges as well as some successes. Time spent working with the resource teacher helped my daughter understand the positive impact that accommodations could have, but getting them from all of her teachers was still a challenge. Her Math teacher, in particular, was very resistant to putting in place the accommodations outlined in her IPP. However, her Language Arts teacher took it upon herself to talk with him about learning disabilities and how they impact learning and that helped, a bit.

I will always be grateful to her for understanding the situation and taking the initiative to help a colleague learn more about the specific challenges that a student with LD faces.  It definitely clarified for us that we needed to think about who our “allies” were and learn to try and work with and through them. 


What Can You Expect in High School?

In high school, we started to slowly shift the lead on advocating to our daughter. We still role-played before she approached teachers with her needs. We would talk about specific questions to ask and often sent her off with prompt cards that she could refer to.  We were very fortunate to have a resource teacher in the school who worked with us to support the development of her advocacy skills.

By the end of high school, she was still a long way from being able to be her own advocate but she was definitely on her way. We really appreciated those teachers who supported her early advocacy attempts to speak up for what she needed. Their sensitivity to her emerging confidence was very helpful in reinforcing those early self-advocacy efforts.


How Do I Self-Advocate as an Adult in University?

Here, she was considered an adult and I was no longer able to take a role in her advocacy. Now she really needed to take the lead. 

As she began her university studies, she chose, with some encouragement, to self-identify at the Disability Centre. There she was matched with a tutor who was very helpful in providing her with guidance for managing in this new environment as well as working with her on strategies for learning. Some professors were open to providing the accommodations that she needed, and some were not.  We continued to role play at home before asks, continued to look for allies who could step in and help when needed. 

At one point there was an issue with the exam schedule. One of my daughter‘s accommodations was double time for exams.  When the exam schedule came out, two exams overlapped. She was unable to get one changed on her own, but her path had crossed several times with the Director of the Disability Centre and so she went to her for guidance. The Director took it upon herself to get the issue resolved. Situations like this provided the positive reinforcement that accommodations were there for a reason and that the university needed to see that they were put in place. It also reinforced the importance of finding allies.

As she progressed through her university studies, each successful advocacy situation led to increased confidence. By the time she completed her academic programs, she was able to advocate on her own behalf in most situations.  Now that she is in the working world, she is very comfortable self-disclosing and asking for what she needs to be successful.   


Reflecting on First Steps

In retrospect, I’m glad that we started the process of developing her self-advocacy skills when she was still in elementary school. It was very much a building process over many years with successes coming very slowly at first. Through patience and persistence on our part as her parents, and finding and working with allies, she slowly gained that initial confidence that she could ask for, and receive, what she needed for accommodations that would ultimately lead to success. I am the very proud parent of a young woman who is herself now a professor at university, still advocating for herself and leading others on this journey.

About The Learning Disability
& ADHD Network

The Learning Disabilities and ADHD Network is a collaborative of a broad group of organizations and individuals in Calgary, which is operated through Foothills Academy Society.

Members of this long-standing Network regularly present at conferences, provide workshops and courses, undertake research projects in the field, collaborate with each other on various initiatives, and jointly create content for the website. Most importantly, 

we are people whose lives have been touched by Learning Disabilities & ADHD, and whose life’s work it has been to support individuals with learning and attention challenges.

Disclaimer: The Learning Disabilities & ADHD Network does not support, endorse or recommend any specific method, treatment, product, remedial centre, program, or service provider for people with Learning Disabilities or ADHD. It does, however, endeavour to provide impartial and, to the best of our knowledge, factual information for persons with Learning Disabilities and/or ADHD.