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I am an Irish psychology student currently studying abroad in Bulgaria. Here, I am taking a course in disability, accomodation & adaption, and the psychology of social change with Prof. Ronald Harvey. As part of these courses, I will be working alongside disabled students at our university; our goal is to make the disability services here more accessible and receptive to students' needs. One major barrier to this has been the students' self advocacy, particularly for those with invisible disabilities: Many students choose not to disclose their disabilities due to previous bad experiences and a lack of faith in the services.

Even if I am unable to make policy changes to the university, I still want to change students' attitude, to encourage them to engage more with these services and with each other. To this end, I wanted to ask for advice on how to build self-advocacy and solidarity in a community of (primarily invisibly) disabled college students. Currently, I am looking towards peer-run solutions that give disabled students agency to represent and campaign for themselves (for example, peer-support groups for wellbeing, peer-run meet and greets or campus orientations).

I also want to take inspiration from my home university and their access programme (the Maynooth Access Programme or MAP). Student Central is one aspect of this programme that links disabled students to an assistant psychologist and offers them one-to-one academic support. I don't think I'll manage to find an assistant psychologist, but I am interested in setting up a similar mentor-support network between junior and senior students.

Of these suggestions (or if you have others), is there one that would be most feasible to achieve? And are these effective ways to foster community, solidarity, and self-advocacy amongst these students? If there is anything else I should explain or clarify, I would be happy to do so. Thank you so much for your time and I look forward to your response.


            Thank you for writing to us at the Community Tool Box and for your very thoughtful, insightful, and well-expressed questions.
            At the Tool Box, we are big believers in dialogue as a way of helping to address problems and issues. In your case, we would certainly advocate for dialogue between the university staff and disabled students, even if there has not been good communication between them in recent times.
        So an important task you can undertake in your role is to help facilitate such a dialogue, over and above whatever dialogue might have happened in the past.  University staff people need to hear what the students have to say, and students need to hear from the university, in open, frank, respectful, and ongoing in-person conversation, facilitated by a neutral person such as yourself.
            This of course does not guarantee positive results, but it does increase the likelihood of  the concerned parties hearing each other, learning from each other, and coming up with workable solutions that benefit everyone. And perhaps policy changes as well. For this kind of dialogue not to take place seems to us like a waste of resources.
            A complementary strategy, which we think is equally worth pursuing, is to establish supportive student-led disability service structures, to the extent they have not been established already, and to maintain and strengthen those structures that now exist.
            That’s because a basic truth about your situation is that is you will soon be leaving, while the students will be staying.  So it should be a personal accomplishment for you, and a benefit for everyone, to leave something in place that will continue after you are gone.
            More specifically, that could be done through a mentoring system such as the MAP you have described back home in Ireland. If you could identify the successful features of that effort and adapt them to Bulgaria, that sounds like an excellent thing to do
            (In this connection, we should also note that the Community Tool Box also contains a considerable amount of material on mentoring, focusing on youth mentoring. You can access much of this in our Chapter 22, at Take a look if you can.)
            Finally, you ask about building self-advocacy and solidarity in your particular setting. We think you do it by showing respect for everyone you're involved with, by supporting and validating student work, by modellng program leadership, and by establishing structures that are enjoyable and supportive for people to be part of, going beyond disability, just to enhance their general well-being. Basic social connection is important in itself.
         All this is not hard, in theory.  Yes, practice can be another story, but that’s part of what makes this work so challenging and rewarding!
         Last point for now: We understand that many students do not wish to self-identify as being disabled; but the fact that they don’t choose to do so may mean they have a lot of ego strength. That is, they could self-identify, self-advocate and get involved if they saw good reason to do so, but in general they may simply not want to call attention to themselves.  In other words, we could regard their reticence as an actual strength you can utilize and build upon.
        We hope some of these thoughts may be helpful to you. Thank you again for being in touch with us.  We think you're on your way to developing some workable interventions and to leaving something behind that will help everyone.  Stay with it!  We wish you great success in your work and hope that things turn out for the very best.  

Question Date: sam, 03/18/2023