Encouraging Self-Advocacy: How to Build Environments for Awareness and Self-Disclosure for Learners with Disabilities

Students sit at work table and give high five in middle

Many learners with disabilities have an increased risk of anxiety (Dionne & Polvinen, 2021; Jaggard 2019; Thaler, Kazemi, & Wood, 2010) and may avoid disclosure-interactions with professors in their higher education environments due to possible stigmas and labels. One significant issue is that professors are not fully aware of each unique learners’ capabilities and prior knowledge, nor the resources that a learner used in the past or currently uses for support. Assumptions are often made since students are in higher education classrooms with rigorous curricula approaches. As a result, intentional and positive encounters become critical reasons for why a student may choose to use accommodations and/or modifications to provide better learning opportunities.

Another step on the path used to gain insight into this issue is student disclosure—which involves explaining sensitive information—so that learners and professors both have transparency, fairness, and respect for class expectations. Professors benefit, most notably, from understanding their students’ diverse backgrounds to reduce anxiety. For these reasons, this article shows educators and professors how to build engaging spaces for awareness and self-disclosure through the self-advocacy of learners with disabilities. Additionally, the type of language to use, the importance of building classroom communities, and acknowledgement of professors’ responses are also discussed.

What type of language to use?

Some of the complexities of a safe and productive classroom are speaking and using non-verbal cues to embody respectful communications. While learning objectives and assessments are often at the forefront of a classroom space, some professors may lack the awareness that effective learning environments exist by the consistent, purposeful tone of respect for one another. This happens outside the traditional classroom, too. Remember that, furthermore, learning actions and cues demonstrate acceptable behaviors.

How professors and learners speak with acceptance, kindness, and authenticity—not just to some members—shows the togetherness of the group. When speaking with students, keep in mind to use the word “we” to show overall learning goals in the classroom partnerships. Rude behavior is often not overt; that being said, courteous behavior is intentional and necessary for safe and inclusive learning spaces where disability disclosure is encouraged. Thus, in many different ways, a professor shows the social patterns for respectful classroom interactions in order to facilitate a community of belonging.

Why and how we should build classroom communities

Classroom communities are built from day one. There is a reason that effective teachers know how to get the best—rather than the most—out of their students; that is because they have spent the time to know their students. Getting the best out of students means knowing and guiding all community members to their fullest potential. In face-to-face or virtual spaces, it is important to begin with introductions and get-to-know-you activities. Ice breakers are what these interactive activities are commonly called. Classroom community helps students to be engaged and empowered, so their voices are heard. Having a voice is the language of inclusion, care, and belonging. Building a community will take a little extra time; however, connections allow future conversations to ensue, where time and space are necessary for growth.

Professors may wonder how to encourage a language of respect. Of course, the syllabus states that the classroom is a place of collegiality, in which one semester may be difficult to create beneficial connections of professional networks, but those relationships are the cornerstone for meaningful learning. Let your students share concerns and affirm their belonging. Professors must model inclusion, in ways that they treat students and colleagues. “Thank you” is a simple, but extremely important affirmation—recognize effort and camaraderie. Support can look different for different students, so provide your students with the gift of belief in them. Remember that trust is a key ingredient of inclusive and successful learning environments.

Acknowledge professors’ responsiveness

As mentioned previously, professors should lead by example to show acceptable behaviors of an inclusive and successful learning environment. For example, a teacher has the responsibility of being the classroom leader and sets the tone of acceptance by inviting all classmates to conferences, study groups, associations, networking, and professional events. These are open for all students—even the ones who are not turning in assignments or attending classes yet—who have potential interest. Notice that one word holds deep meaning: all.

The authors, Dr. Mays and I, want to share insight on the distinctions between “apparent” and “non-apparent” disabilities. As professors understand, we have a calling to respond to students’ questions, needs, concerns, abilities, and backgrounds—to name a few traits that influence learning. That being said, we cannot make assumptions whether we see (or not) a disability. On a personal note, as a classroom leader, I am comfortable to point out my own non-apparent vision issues (astigmatism and vision impairment) to initiate a mutual self-disclosure, as well as trust that we will help each other in a learning partnership. One quiet afternoon, a student walked into my office and pulled up her pant leg, and she revealed a surprise. She had scars and remnants of bullet wounds, still, where her ex-husband had shot her. I had no idea that her limp was related to a serious incident that could affect her mentally and physically. This student said that she felt safe to share with me and knew that I would not have judgement towards her. It takes courage from a person to share when possible stigmas could exist.

Students with disabilities, both apparent and non-apparent, may fear consequences from self-disclosure of disabilities to professors because of judgments of possible stigmas, such as professors not feeling students with disabilities are capable of success in classrooms. Dr. Brevetti’s willingness to self-disclose her non-apparent disabilities created a comfortable environment for her student to do the same with her. This type of interaction is important for professors as it allows them to develop trust with students. As mentioned previously, trust is a key ingredient of meaningful learning environments. If learners with disabilities are able to trust professors, they may be more willing to self-disclose through self-advocacy and use available accommodations and/or modifications.

Professors’ responsiveness is to “feedforward,” in addition to meaningful feedback, the situations and information that help students excel. To feedforward for learners, professors encourage effort and recognize teaching in small, connected ways for big learning. Growth comes from positive interactions with fair guidance, in which learners trust professors to push them down meaningful—not always easy, not always linear—ways of knowing.

Coming full circle on the path: The courage to make steps for self-advocacy

Relationships matter. On the path of encouraging self-advocacy for learners, building relationships with others around us and sharing knowledge matter greatly. How do we come full circle from this article’s opening points about promoting awareness and disclosure? In sum, professors also prioritize the multiple ways to include learners—it is vital to create a classroom of collegiality, which is accomplished through purposeful interactions that show appreciation for differences and a community of togetherness.

Learners with disabilities have to feel genuine acceptance so that it will lend itself to self-advocacy. Through these approaches of respectful communication, non-verbal cues, inclusive projects, and compassionate behaviors, successful communities are established. Indeed, those relationships will pave the way to other opportunities. By showing professional openness and vulnerability as the classroom leader, a reciprocity exists with students to share their concerns. Take the time to make steps for learners’ self-advocacy, and that investment will bring big results. Forget setting limits and focus on setting real goals together! When learners feel this inclusion, they become self-advocates who are confident with self-disclosure—asking questions for content mastery and understanding ownership in their learning goals. Thus, professors understand this deep connection of how relationships matter for disclosure-interactions and self-advocacy because they have the courage to share knowledge that connects minds and hearts of all learners.

Dr. Melissa Anne Brevetti is a researcher and educator who believes in “maximizing the power of one.”  Her scholarship examines human nature as it pertains to inclusive practices, moral development, and historical virtue-ethics.  More specifically, she aims to understand how people think and act critically, morally, ethically (or not) in their educative settings across time so that effective practices and policy are put into action.  Dr. Brevetti is a recipient of the International Roundtable Scholar and Ten Outstanding Young Americans Awards.    

Dr. Bradley Mays earned his doctorate in Adult & Higher Education from University of Oklahoma. His experiences as a person with a disability resulted in a desire to help students with disabilities thrive in higher education settings. His research interests include students with disabilities, increasing education and awareness about disability issues, engagement and inclusion. Dr. Mays believes education about disability issues can improve campus climate and educational and employment outcomes for people with disabilities.


Dionne, H, and Polvinen, L. (2021). The relationship between language-based learning disabilities (LBLD) and anxiety. All About Learning Disabilities and ADHD. http://www.ldonline.org/article/65699/

Jaggard, N. (2019). Making sense of the overlapping nature of anxiety, ADHD, and LDs. Foothills Academy. https://www.foothillsacademy.org/community-services/parent-education/parent-articles/making-sense

Thaler, N., Kazemi, E, and Wood, J. (2010). Measuring anxiety in youth with learning disabilities: reliability and validity of the Multidimensional Anxiety Scale for Children (MASC). Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 41(5), 501–514. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10578-010-0182-5