Self-Advocacy and Leadership
CQL Quality Enhancement Specialist
When I think of a leader, I think of someone who has a strong personality and who will stand up for what she or he believes in. A leader is someone who also will stand back and quietly watch someone try before they come and help. I think it is important for people with disabilities to be given the chance to gain these skills if they want to be a leader. Having leadership skills can help with confidence, developing relationships, being proud, and feeling good about what you can accomplish. It can also create a feeling of belonging to a community and contributing a meaningful idea to the discussion or cause. It can help you also feel empowered and powerful.
Some people without disabilities don’t have confidence that people with disabilities can achieve leadership skills. I will give you some examples of when people have either given me the chance to prove my leadership skills, or when people have just assumed that because of my disability, I can’t have those skills.
Many people with disabilities have never had the chance to experience the feeling of belonging or contributing to something.
- Have you ever wondered why that was the case?
- Could it be that, some people don’t think a person with a disability would have something worthwhile to say or that it really would matter?
For example, I recently went to a rally involving the lives of people with disabilities. People questioned the things I said and wondered whether they were truly my words, not words that someone else put in my mouth. This was because they didn’t even give me a chance. Some people thought that others told me what to say. Instead of getting upset, I reminded them that I had every right to voice my opinions on the same issues that were being discussed. I also told them about the beliefs that I had on the issues that we were discussing. Yes, I might speak slower than they do, but I can still speak up for what I think is right, and be a leader.
Becoming a leader doesn’t happen overnight. It is very common that people with disabilities are afraid to be a leader. One reason might be we are often told that we can’t be one. Earlier, I talked about telling someone at a rally that I have beliefs about issues that were discussed. However, if I never was encouraged or taught to be a leader, I don’t think I could have had the courage that it took to talk to that person. There was something inside of me saying that I wanted to be a leader. I just needed someone that I could trust and look up to, and learn from.
When I told one of my friends who I looked up to, and trusted, that I wanted to become a leader, I thought that it would magically happen. It is not that simple, though I wish it was. Being a leader takes hard work and determination on your end. However, my friend stood by me and gave me hints on becoming a leader. She told me that no one could do the work but me. To this day, I believe that no one can force you into being a leader.
I remember being scared the first time I heard someone say that I was a leader. I also remember two of my friends who are national leaders of the self-advocacy movement, helping me to realize that I had leadership skills. I fought them by saying that I didn’t believe that I had what it took to be a leader—or at least not the kind of leader that they were. They told me that everyone has different kinds of leadership styles. Some have strong, and others have quiet leadership qualities. Each style can be effective. You are the only one who can decide which leadership style you will have.
Being a leader was the first time I realized I could contribute and had something to give. I felt that people were willing to give me a chance, even if I messed up at first. They were willing to give me the time and respect I needed to grow. That meant a lot to me. I soon realized that everyone makes mistakes, but this doesn’t stop him or her from being a leader. It hasn’t stopped me either. Over the years of being a national leader in the self-advocacy movement, I have observed that there are certain characteristics of a good leader. These traits are honesty, bravery, taking risks, believing in the cause, strong personality, dreams, open for criticism, and willing to work at it, but most of all believing in yourself.
Sometimes it takes friends or others to help you realize that you can speak up and take that leadership role. People with disabilities might have to be reminded of this once in a while. This is why self-advocacy and other advocacy efforts are so important, because you feel like you are among people that understand.
A leader can play a role in a lot of different arenas. You can be a leader in your family, in a social situation, a job, and in life in general. One of my colleagues recognized that I could benefit from developing stronger leadership skills. She helped me practice, and provided guidance and support in developing the skills I needed to be more effective. She did this because she cared about me, as a person, but more importantly, she believed in what I could accomplish.
If I didn’t have people in my life that truly believed in me, I don’t think I would be the leader I am today. People look up to you for support and guidance. That’s why I think it’s important for you, as organizations, to believe in people.