Insights on building your self-advocacy muscles

I have been interviewing people about their life as it relates to money for a couple of years now. Over and over, I have seen the ability to champion, justify, build a case, manoeuver, and escalate to advance one’s goals as a key part of success.  Alyssa Swartz, Income Security Health Promoter at St. Michael’s Hospital, refers to this as self-advocacy.

In interviewing Alyssa, she discusses the importance of self-advocacy in success.  She says, “In some of our greatest struggles, we find our greatest strengths”. Advocating for ourselves can help us find those greatest strengths. 

Here are 5 easy steps that can help you flex your self-advocacy muscles and make progress towards your goals.

1.     Be clear about your specific goals

Knowing where you are trying to go and what specific things will help you is critical to being able to advocate for yourself.  Whether you are trying to negotiate a raise, reduce the interest on your credit card or get access to needed government supports like Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), understanding what you want to achieve will help you break it down into steps, identify the best resources, individuals to speak with and questions to ask. 

2.     Know your rights & responsibilities

Alyssa says, “Your rights and responsibilities always go together”. We often struggle to overcome our challenges.  We deal every day with systems designed to be efficient for those providing the service and with individuals, who for a variety of reasons ranging from lack of understanding to overwork, may not provide the full information, clarity, knowledge or service we are entitled to or who may make us feel like we are worth less because we are in need. 

The amount of time, effort, persistence and tenacity required to manoeuver through existing systems can ware anyone down.  It can also blur the fact that there are both specific rights and responsibilities associated with employment, social programs and housing.

For example, as an employee, you have the right to refuse unsafe work[1], and as an ODSP recipient, you have the right to a decision in writing, a chance to have decisions reviewed and to appeal decisions[2].  As a tenant it is important to know that your landlord is not able to increase your rent by an amount greater than the annual guideline set by the Ministry of Housing[3]. Understanding specific rights and responsibilities can help ensure that you are not taken advantage of and can help you access the resources and programs needed to help you achieve your goals. 

3.     Build your capacity

Successful self-advocacy is made up of a number of micro skills ranging from an understanding of how things work and who is responsible for what to an ability to clearly communicate what you need and the discipline to take notes, recap discussions, and follow up on next steps. The more you understand, know and are able to do, the more successful you will be regardless of the situation.  Success builds upon success.  Take small steps, they add up to huge change.

A good way to do this is to take time out to prepare.  Benjamin Franklin once said that by “failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.  With this in mind, a good strategy is to regularly take time out for planning.  Even taking small amounts of time at the beginning of the month, week or in advance of a discussion, ensures we think about and understand everything that is needed to move forward and helps us build our capacity.

For example, if you are preparing to negotiate a raise with your employer, it is beneficial to spend time speaking with colleagues about salary ranges inside your organization, researching the comparable salaries on sites like PayScale and glassdoor, as well as putting together a list of your achievements in the past year and your work goals for the coming year.  This information can provide a strong business case for a raise. 

If on the other hand, you are in need of financial assistance, spending time researching the different programs ranging from Second Careers to Ontario Works, their eligibility requirements and their application process will help you select the most relevant for you.  Looking at the application process and trying to fill in the application before an initial appointment will help you understand which pieces are most difficult and focus your questions on what would be most helpful to you.  Getting support on the most difficult pieces can help increase the success of your application and reduce the amount of time you need to complete it. 

4.     Hold others accountable to their responsibilities

In addition to understanding rights and responsibilities, it is important, that we create the accountability necessary to ensure we benefit from our rights.  Although confusing processes requiring significant time investments and a power imbalance can make holding others accountable difficult, this process is very valuable and can ensure that we access the resources and programs we are entitled to.  Some good strategies for holding others accountable include:

  • Being calm and solutions oriented; Staying composed and focused on moving forward despite the many frustrations that can arise can help ensure that those we are working with focus on helping us move forward

  • Documenting and preparing; Documenting the information we have received in writing and following up with notes and next steps can help create momentum and accountability to completion of the next steps

  • Providing timelines; Outlining timelines and providing dates when a specific task needs to be completed or specific information is needed can help provide an understanding of the full effort and to create a sense of urgency

  • Escalating; Escalating an issue by involving more senior representatives or individuals from other departments can ensure we get the support and information we are entitled to


5.     Practice your self advocacy as much as possible

Self-advocacy is like a muscle, the more we use it, the more it grows. The good thing is that there are endless opportunities to practice.  Be it seeking out or negotiating lower cost credit cards, or speaking to a caseworker to understand all the available benefits and their requirements, to escalating discussions when we unable to get the information or service we believe we are entitled to, the opportunity to self-advocate and advance towards our goals is all around us.

That is it; these are the steps to self-advocacy. 

Yes, it takes works and practice but it is doable. 

And it is valuable. 

The value can be seen in one of Alyssa’s clients who was able to access ODSP’s Employment and Training Start up Benefit[4] for their General Equivalency Diploma (GED) after providing a written appeal letter to a declined request, in Rohan’s story, helping him reduce his borrowing costs by over $50,000 and in Ricardo’s story, helping him grow his income from $32,000 to $94,000.

As Alyssa says; “Success can build on itself.  A small try in advocacy in one area can lead to an increase in confidence when advocating in other areas”.

I look forward to sharing more self-advocacy success stories.  If you have an experience that you feel would benefit others, please email me at


[1] Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety, OH&S Legislation in Canada – Basic Responsibilities, Retrieved from August 7, 2018

[2] Ministry of Children, Community & Social Services, As an Ontario Disability Support Program Recipient:  Your Rights.  Retrieved from July 20, 2018

[3] Social Justice Tribunals Ontario, Landloard & Tenant Board, Retrieved from, August 7, 2018

[4] Ministry of Children, Community & Social Services, Employment incentives and benefits: Employment and Training Start Up Benefit.  Retrieved from July 22, 2010