A workshop last week at Howard Community College focused on self-advocacy — a means of enabling people, particularly those with developmental disabilities, to speak up and communicate their needs.
Facilitator Ann Kukulies offered a few real-life scenarios that, she said, can make speaking up uncomfortable for anyone.
"You are in a movie theater, and the person behind you is kicking the back of your seat," said Kukulies, career assistant for Counseling and Career Services at HCC. "You are pretty sure that he is not doing it on purpose, but it is very annoying. How do you handle that situation?"
Kukulies' job is to help make handling just those kinds of situations easier.
Faced with confrontation, students tend to have one of two tendencies, she said: They don't do anything, or they are a little aggressive. Self- advocates, she said, aren't interested in winning arguments or putting people in their places. They use moderate tones of voice and refrain from insults, personal attacks or vulgarity.
"Self-advocacy is trying to accomplish a goal that will help you some way. It's not to make a point," Kukulies said. "It's not always easy, but it's something that, with practice, everyone can learn to do.
"It takes knowledge of what your rights and responsibilities are in a situation — and knowledge of your strengths and challenges."
Kukulies said self-advocacy is often practiced naturally in formal settings — such as in disputes at work or working to get help from government agencies — but it's difficult in informal settings, such as the movie theater scenario, the likes of which can lead to physical confrontations.
"What I tell students in the workshop is — there are several ways to handle it," Kukulies said. "If there were many seats in the theater, and I was just as comfortable moving to [another] seat, I might just move. That meets my needs, and I'm not compromising any of my rights. My goal is to enjoy the movie.
"If there weren't other seats," Kukulies said, "then I would turn around, and say in a very nice voice, 'I'm sure you don't mean to, but you keep hitting the seat. I was just wondering if you could stop.' Then you say, 'Thank you,' and turn around.
"When you say 'thank you,' you are indicating you have the belief that the person is going to accommodate you," she said. "Then we would see where it went. If the person continued, I would glance over my shoulder.
"If it's a subconscious movement, and I'm giving the person the benefit of the doubt, maybe they just need a reminder. If not, I would find an usher or someone."
Those who attended Kukulies ' workshop said it underscored their needs to stand up for themselves.
Ricardo Myrick of Baltimore, whose wife works at the college, said he has a brain tumor that, though benign, has caused him to suffer some memory loss and hampered his ability to multitask.
"That creates times when I don't speak up," Myrick said. Other times, he said, he's gone over people's heads to third parties — which can lead to people feeling as if he's been disrespectful.
"The class has given me a perspective of the best methods of being assertive," he said.
Kukulies said the focus on self-advocacy as a movement and practice began around the early 1990s. In recent years, she said, much advocacy has been geared toward empowering young people, particularly those headed to college. It's a real issue for people with disabilities, she said.
"What happens is when students move from the public school system to college, they stop being covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and they are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act," Kukulies said. "The rules and regulations they are subject to are changing.
"They need to learn what it means to be an adult in this world. They are going from their parents advocating for them to doing that for themselves."