Advocating for Neurodivergent Learners: What I Learned This Summer
One of REEL's Summer 2022 interns, Nora, focused on developing an advocacy playbook to help REEL learn more about navigating legislative systems. Check out the playbook she created and her reflection on her internship experience. REEL had three interns from a local private school working on projects to help educators, parents, and policymakers better understand these unique, twice-exceptional learners. We were lucky to have Christine, Aaron, and Nora on our team—thank you for your fabulous contributions to our mission! Christine and Aaron created videos for our new 'Ever Had a Kid Like Me?' video series. Watch what they created on REEL's YouTube channel - 2e Perspective: Dyslexia and 2e Perspective: ADHD.
During my summer internship with REEL, I focused on discovering what advocacy is and how REEL can push twice-exceptional advocacy forward.
At its most basic, advocacy means asking people in power to help reach an outcome. This can take the form of meeting with those people, sharing resources, and more.
Building relationships is one of the key tenets of advocacy. Whether it’s meeting with a legislator or school administrator, getting in touch is the first step. An email is a great way to introduce yourself and organize a meeting. The email you write should be fairly concise, but should explain who you are and what you care about. Keep in mind that the objective of the email is not to do the advocacy, but to get a meeting where you can do that advocacy. It will be easier to establish a personal connection through a meeting.
When advocating with government officials, meetings typically are short. Usually around 15 minutes. Your goal is to establish a connection with the person you’re speaking with. Oftentimes, you’ll meet with a legislator’s staffer rather than the legislator themselves. That’s okay, the staffers often lead on more specific issues, so your time might be even more impactful this way. Afterwards, make sure to send a thank you note to show appreciation and outline potential next steps. If you want to continue advocating, ask to schedule regular meetings around a month or two apart. This will make sure the people you’re talking with remember you, and will enable you to continue to develop strong relationships.
When it comes to petitions, they tend not to be too helpful because lawmakers see them as just one instance of advocacy, rather than thinking of each person who signed as individual instances. Because of this, it’s more effective for individuals to send an email, letter, or make a phone call. For example, if a politician notices they’ve received a lot of mail about 2e kids, they are more incentivized to learn about the issue compared to the interest level just one petition generates. However, if you consider a petition as part of your advocacy work, focus on local issues. It’s more likely that change will be made on these smaller scales.
I also focused more specifically on one aspect of advocacy—information sharing. There is a bill by the name of SB1113 which outlines more inclusive teaching frameworks for students. It focuses specifically on a framework called Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which allows students to engage with and show their knowledge of material through multiple pathways. For example, rather than only showing mastery through an essay, UDL would give students the opportunity to show what they know through a presentation, video, diagram, or other methods. This allows 2e students (as well as all students) to more fully engage in the classroom. I found this bill through watching the California Advisory Commission on Special Education, and tracked it through leginfo.legislature.ca.gov. I got most of my information from a SELPA (Special Education Local Plan Area, the school offices that provide special education services) brief on the bill, as well as the text of the bill itself. I also worked with the REEL team to put together a brief for REEL that they later sent out to their community, which was really cool! The bill passed through both the State House and Assembly, but unfortunately Governor Newsom vetoed it. Currently, it is back in the Senate as they consider the Governor’s veto. From this experience, I learned about the minutiae of the state legislation process—what all the little steps in between votes and governor approval are. I also learned about the UDL framework and the importance of increasing inclusivity in the classroom, especially in California.
I interned with REEL over the whole summer, and I learned a lot of new things. What surprised me most was the meta-studies I found that analyzed common modes of advocacy and their efficacy. I didn’t expect that there would be such exhaustive research, but it was really informative. One key study I found outlined five advocacy strategies, spelling out what specific activities needed to be focused on to achieve the advocacy goal, linked here. I also gained experience with interviewing experts in the field, which was a new experience for me. I found it wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I thought it would be, and it was quite cool to hear experts’ opinions. I also spent some time learning about California’s education system, particularly as it pertains to students who need accommodations. I was surprised at how much legislation and infrastructure is already in place. But, at the same time, I was saddened by the lack of awareness and inequitable access to some of these resources. I hope REEL will help combat these issues, and I’m so proud to have played a role in their work!
About the Author: Nora is a current high school junior with a passion for advocacy and learning.