Academic Ableism and Students with Intellectual/Development Disabilities

Rethinking Self-Advocacy as an Anti-Ableist Practice


  • Sean Kamperman Valparaiso University



disability studies, ableism, students, intellectual disability, developmental disability, anti-ableist practices, self-advocacy


Per laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, college students with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD) in the United States are expected to be self-advocates and speak up for needed accommodations, regardless of diagnosis or condition. Students with I/DD in particular are frequently taught the dominant view of self-advocacy as a set of skills whereby they achieve self-determination. This view undersells the degree to which self-advocacy is a rhetorical enterprise, wherein students craft their speech to achieve immediate social purposes; and it elides the political history of self-advocacy in the U.S. and its ties to the adult self-advocacy movement. In light of these considerations, I seek to understand how ableism on college campuses gives shape to particular ideas about self-advocacy. Through five student interviews, I analyze how everyday talk about self-advocacy on a university campus is constructed through ableist discourses privileging mastery, concealment of bodily difference, and autonomy. Based on this analysis, I argue that it is necessary that educators reimagine self-advocacy as a collective responsibility engaging students, faculty, administrators, and staff in creating more accessible campus cultures, rather than as a hyper-individualized, self-directed pursuit of personal goals.