Using Self-Awareness to Advocate for Support Needs in Different Environments

By Jordan Smelley, Mental Health Peer Specialist (MHPS) and Sarah Galbraith Laucks, Director of Education and Events, Abilities Expo

Editor's Note:

This article is the transcript of the training from Jordan Smelley, which has been edited to make it easier to read. See below the article for more details.

Click to download presentation slides from the video or the worksheet mentioned in the presentation. An updated version of this training entitled Self-Awareness for Job Accommodations – CEU Workshop will take place at Abilities Expo Dallas on Friday, December 1 at 11:45am. If you hold a Certification or License issued by Texas Certification Board (TCBAP) this course is eligible for one General ED CEU hour.

Good afternoon. My name is Jordan Smelley. I am a person with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) with co-occurring mental health diagnosis.

What long-term recovery means to me is:

  • the ability to advocate for myself to find the resources that I need,
  • the ability to help support others, and
  • the ability to do trainings like this to help those with IDD be able to better get their support needs met.

Today we'll be talking about using our self-awareness to advocate for support needs in different environments.


What is Self-Awareness?

The first thing we have to talk about is what is self-awareness.

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize your strengths and challenges and personality traits, and understanding how they shape you as an individual.

Self awareness: two women in a workplace environment smiling at the camera

What are Support Needs?

So, for support needs and for those of you who have maybe been working for a while this term "support needs" might sound like another term—"reasonable accommodations."

But for me, at least in my experience when supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, when I ask them, "what are some accommodations you need"—they don't always fully understand what I'm asking them about. If I rephrase the question and then I ask them, "what are some of your support needs"—then they can much more easily explain the support they need.

So, support needs are types of assistance or devices needed in order to participate as independently as possible in the community at large. Support needs include but not limited to:

  • being able to fulfill job duties with as much Independence as possible,
  • fulfill educational requirements for degrees or trainings, and
  • ability to participate and social interactions without feeling isolated.

About Strengths

All right, so the first thing we're going to talk about is what are strengths. Strengths are characteristics and or skills that you have mastered or have a strong foundation in. This means that these are things that come very easily to you.

Example #1: Jordan's Strengths

An example for me would be speaking at conferences and doing trainings like this one. Because speaking is something that comes very easy to me and it's also something that I really enjoy doing.

Typically, if something is a strength for you then it's something that you also get enjoyment out of doing.

Strengths are:

  • Characteristics or skills you have mastered
  • Things you enjoy doing
  • Things that are easy for you to do

Example #2: Jim Strengths

Another example would be one thing that sets Jim apart from other applicants is his organizational skills. In this scenario Jim's ability to be very organized is a strength of his that sets him apart from others.

Example #3: Jen's Strengths

Another example might look like this: Jen's ability to empathize with her clients makes her a very effective therapist.

Here, Jane's characteristic of empathy is a strength for her because her level of empathy allows her to be a more effective therapist.

About Challenges

All right, so we just talked about strengths so now we will talk about what are challenges.

Challenges are characteristics or skills you struggle with executing.

Example #1: Challenges for a Person with IDD

For example, one thing that might be a challenge for some individuals with IDD (such as myself) is social skills. It's not that we can't be social because everyone well usually people like being social, but for some a little more effort has to be put forth. So therefore it (being social) would fall under being a challenge.

Example #2: Jim

Another example would look like this. Although Jim has excellent organizational skills, he struggles with making friends. In this scenario while one of Jim's strengths is organizational skills, he struggles with making friends which would mean that making friends would be considered one of Jim's challenges.

Challenges versus Weaknesses

Another thing I want to point out here is when you go, and you interview at jobs some employers will ask you, "what are some of your weaknesses?" and what they're actually asking you is "what are some of your challenges?"

Example #3: Jordan

And so what I have found, at least for myself, is that when I'm able to rephrase that question and I'm able to list what some of my challenges are—then I am also able to advocate for the support I need to overcome that challenge.

Sometimes I'll also include what some of my strengths are [in my answer]. This helps to negate the challenges so then you will look more employable to an employer. You also won't look like you might be too much effort in order for them to be able to properly support you—because you're able to identify where your struggles are, but you're also able to point out what your strengths are. Then you're also able to inform the employer of what supports you need which helps the employer be able to be make a more informed decision on if this [hiring you for the job] might be a good fit for them.

In my experience when I get put in a position [job] that I'm not a very good fit for, not only is it stressful for the employer, but it's also very stressful for me. Because I'm not able to get my supports met, and when I can't get my supports met at least in regard to what I struggle with and what I have to have in order to overcome my challenges, then it just becomes a very frustrating situation for all involved and not very productive.

Example #2: Jane

Another example of what challenges might look like is, although Jane is excellent at expressing empathy towards her clients, Jane struggles with expressing disappointment with some clients. In this scenario, while expressing empathy is a strength for Jane, expressing disappointment with some clients is something Jane struggles with. Executing therefore her struggle with expressing disappointment with some clients would be considered a challenge for Jane.

All right so we've talked about strengths which are the things that you have mastered or have a strong foundation in. We've talked about challenges which are the skills that you struggle with.

Woman in a workplace smiling at the camera while a colleage works in the background

About Personality Traits

Now we're going to briefly touch on our personality traits. Personality traits are characteristics that distinguish the character, action, attitude of a person. Some examples of this would be smiling, cheerful, angry, bitter, honesty, responsibility, etc.

So, the personality traits are the characteristics that you identify with the person's behavior.

Example: Myself (Jordan)

For example, what I have kind of come to learn about myself, at least in the employment environment, is that it's really a challenge for me to work with people that are constantly bitter or angry. Because for me what happens is that I pick up on that behavior and then it becomes a challenge. Because when I pick up on it [I wonder], "is that me that's causing that [behavior] or is that something that's just typical for them or are they having a bad day?"

Being Responsible for Your Own Behavior:

When you're able to identify people's personality traits, it's also important to remember that you are only person responsible for your own behavior.

For example, if I'm working with someone and let's say we get [the job] done, but then our supervisor says, "you know you missed a step." If my co-worker just gets all angry and bitter about that being pointed out, [the truth is] I can only be responsible for my reaction. I can't take on ownership of how my co-worker feels. So you [need to] know you're only responsible for yourself.

So, when it comes to personality traits it's good to be able to identify them.

And it's good to know what your own personality traits are, because then if you know what your personality traits are that makes it easier for you to go and find people who share those traits.

Because what I have found for myself at least is if I find people who are also smiling, cheerful, honest, and responsible, then I tend to work really, really well with [others] that share those types of personality traits.

At Job Interviews:

Being able to identify your personality traits will also help you in a job interview. Because then you're able to let the employer know what some of your personality traits are. If you're able to identify and share those, they can also figure out whether or not your personality would be a good match for the type of job they are hiring for.

Because, again in my experience, when my personality doesn't really fit the type of environment that I would be working in, things don't really go smoothly. And then it becomes more challenging and more frustrating.

So being able to identify your personality traits and also understand the type of personality traits that you mesh well with can help you in an employment environment to figure out whether or not the job is a good fit for you. That way you're not putting yourself through unnecessary frustration.

How to Use Self-Awareness to Identify Support Needs

We have now talked about strengths—which are the skills that you have that you have mastered or have a strong foundation in.

We've talked about challenges—which you know are the skills that you struggle with.

We've talked about personality traits—like smiling, hard worker, responsible, honest, angry, bitter, etc.

Now we're going to take that knowledge and we're going to put it into practice using self-awareness to identify support needs in different environments.

Does anyone want to guess what the first step might be?

Step One: Identify the Type of Environment

The first step is to identify the type of environment you will be in.

In order to use self-awareness, you know you have to be able to identify the type of environment you will be in. Because at least in my personal experience for myself as well as what I've recognized as I've supported people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is that the support needs change depending on the type of environment that you will be in.

Step Two: Identify Your Strengths and Challenges for the Environment

The next step would be identifying your strengths and challenges for the environment you identified in Step One.

I promise this will make more sense in a minute if you just stick with me.

Step Three: Record Your Notes

Use a piece of paper or your electronic device to write down the support needs you have for the challenges you identified in step two.

I say [either] paper or electronic device because I know, again from my personal experience, that for me handwriting is more challenging for me than typing. For other people typing is more of a challenge than handwriting. So, I try to make these steps as universal as possible which means you can use a piece of paper or your electronic device (like a phone, computer, or tablet).

We'll get through some examples here in a minute.

Step Four: Take Your Notes with You to Advocate for Your Support Needs

The fourth and final step is to take your notes with you [to the job interview].

Either your handwritten notes, or if the notes are on an electronic device and you have the ability to print it off then please print them and take the paper with you.

Having the notes printed will help you to remember the support needs you have identified in Step Three and to advocate for those support needs.

It's really important when you identify your challenges and your support needs that you have them written down or typed. It's important to have these notes with you because then you're not relying on your memory when you're meeting with whoever it is that you need to meet with to advocate for your support needs.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Reasonable Accommodations

An important thing to keep in mind for support needs on the job or academic environments is that you may be required to submit documentation from one of your doctors as part of what's called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations.

But what's really, really important for you to understand with the ADA is, yes, the employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations; however the ADA also says that to you that those accommodations can't fully get rid of what the employer identifies as essential job duties.

It also mentions that if the employer can prove that the accommodation you are requesting would cause undue burden for them, then they don't have to provide it.

But if they're claiming undue burden then [perhaps] what they [could] be doing is working with you to help identify another accommodation that would work for them and that would help you get the support you need.

An Accommodations Example

For example, for myself at one of my recent jobs I tried working full-time, but full-time just was not possible. This was due to my disabilities, physically, because I wear leg braces.

One thing my job job did do was to allow me to work part-time.

Another thing they did was because I lived an hour away (and traffic is a really big deal for me when driving) what we did was we set my schedule where I would go into the office after rush hour, but also leave to go home before rush hour started in the afternoon. I was still doing the essential duties of my job. I just wasn't going in [to the office] when most of my co-workers would go in.

Advocate for Yourself and Work With Your Employer

It's important to speak up for yourself and to advocate. But it's also important to keep in mind that whatever support you ask for, you need to keep the employer in mind. Because if you're able to identify things that are super easy for the employer to enact, [then it's more likely you'll get your support needs met].

For example, at my most recent job, [the solution] was going in to the office at 10:00 a.m. instead of 8:00 a.m. And getting off work at 2:00 p.m. instead of 5:00 p.m. Going in at 10:00 a.m. allowed me to miss morning rush hour. Getting off at 2:00 p.m. allowed me to get out of there before evening rush hour.

If you're able to identify those types of solutions to get your support needs met, but don't run the risk of severely hampering the services that the employer provides, then you have a greater chance of getting your support needs met.

The other thing that's important to understand is that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to those companies that have at least 15 full-time employees.

If you work for a really small company and are trying to claim American with Disabilities Act is being violated, but the employer has less than 15 full-time employees, it isn't going to work for you. So, another thing to keep in mind at least for when you're advocating for your support needs in an employment environment is if you're going to apply to a "Mom-and-Pop" type of place, just know that technically they—if they have less than 15 full-time employees—aren't bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That's when it becomes really, really important to be able to identify your challenges and be able to clearly communicate your support needs. So that way you and your employer can figure out whether this job would be a good fit for you or not.

Example for Work Environments

Let's look at some examples. First, we'll have a work environment example which is this one. Then I'll cover the other two types of environments.

The first environment is a work environment.

For this example, John was hired as a cashier at Taco Bell. While John can do most job duties without any support, he is unable to stand for long periods of time due to a medical condition. John is self-aware of his challenge of standing for extended periods of time.

Let's pause right there. So, John has already done Step One which is identify the environment. Because he has identified this is his job, so this is a work environment. And he's done Step Two which is he has identified his strengths and challenges because he is aware of his challenge to stand for extended periods of time.

All right so let's continue.

So John being self-aware of his challenge of standing for extended periods of time meets with his supervisor in private and explains to his supervisor he has a support need of having a stool to sit on while working at the cash registers so that he can perform his duties of working at the cash register.

John has also done Step Three—well Steps Three and Four technically because when John advocates for a support need, he provides his supervisor with a doctor's note stating that John does have a medical condition that prevents him from standing for long periods of time and having a stool to sit on would be an appropriate support need for John.

So now John has identified the work environment. He's identified strengths and challenges. It's assumed he's written things down because he brought a doctor's note with him, and he has done Step Four which is to advocate for his support need.

Notice that John did keep in mind the Americans with Disabilities Act because he did bring documentation from his doctor that stated he does have a medical condition and that having a chair to sit on would be a reasonable support need for John.

So, because John was self-aware about his struggles standing for extended periods of time he was able to get what he needed in order to fill his duties as a cashier. 

Example for College and Academic Environments

So, we just looked at an example of what it looks like to use self-awareness to advocate for your support needs in a work environment.

Now we will look at an example of advocating for support needs in a college academic environment.

This process will also work for high school, middle school, and for those of you who might have kids like in elementary school. This is something you could use with your child to help get their support needs met. When I do this presentation, I'm typically doing it for age 18 and up and so that's why I'm specifically using a college example.

In this example, Jim has decided to attend community college to get an associate of applied science degree.

A man working in a library by reading braille

Through his research, he has identified you must go through the disability support services office at the campus in order to get his support needs due to learning differences met for classes he enrolls in.

Jim, being self-aware that his two biggest struggles are timed exams and exams that are more hands-on, schedules an appointment with the disability support services office on campus.

All right, so Jim has already done Step One, which is he has identified the environment because this is the academic environment.

And he has also done Step Two, which is he has recognized what are his challenges.

When Jim goes to his appointment, he brings along documentation from his doctors explaining Jim's learning differences and asks disability support services for:

  1. extended time on all non-hands-on exams and
  2. to have hands-on exams individually proctored

I'll explain what this means here in a minute.

With extended time as well it means that Jim can talk out loud during the test. And have more time during hands-on exams that include identifying things through microscope and or pinned areas on cadavers as needed for this degree.

Because Jim did his research and went through proper channels at the community college, Jim was able to get his support needs met (extended time on non-hands-on exams and having more hands-on exams individually proctored with the extended time as well).

All right so when we talk about having an exam individually proctored, what that basically means, and this is one type of test this practice is typically done for (and this is pretty much the only time I used this back when I went through college) is for a lab test.

In my case it was for anatomy and physiology lab. What individually proctored means for this type of test is that you either find the time that works for you and your professor for you to take the test where it's just you and your professor in the lab. If you're not able to find a time that works for both of you then you would go to the disability support services office and then they would provide a staff member and you would take it with them in the room. Basically, what that looks like is they are in the room with you, they can read a question or pronounce a word if you need them to, but that's about the only help you can get.

Basically, the whole point of the disability support staff person being in the room is to make sure you don't cheat. Doing tests in this way allows individuals like me, who maybe have really bad test anxiety, the ability to take the test with as minimal amount of distraction as possible. Because I also have ADHD and so for me if I try taking a lab test with all my other classmates in the room, it would be very distracting to me and it'd be very hard for me to focus. So, what having a lab exam individually-proctored does for a student is it basically gives the individual with the disability a level playing field. It gives us an equal opportunity to pass the test.

It's not a situation where you get someone telling you what a word means. What it does is it helps limit the amount of the distractions as much as possible so that you have a fair chance of passing the exam.

(And for those of you that don't know what the word "cadaver" means it basically means a dead body.)

So now you know that "individually proctored" means that it's the person taking the test as well as the professor or a designated staff member with them during the test. And those are the only people who are in the room while the test is being administered.

Example for Social Environments

All right, so we've looked at a work environment, and we've looked at an academic environment.

So now we're going to look at what is one way it might look to advocate for support needs in a social environment. Because people with intellectual and developmental disabilities want to socialize just like everyone else, but sometimes people with intellectual developmental disabilities might just need a little extra support so that they feel included and not excluded.

Because you know it is possible for people with this disability and with disabilities in general to be present in a social environment but still feel excluded. Because they're not having their support need met to be able to feel included.

Social Environment Example: Tina

Tina, who lost her left leg in a car accident and now wears an artificial left leg so she can get around without crutches, loves bowling.

(And yes, I know the medical term for this is prosthesis or prosthetic. But when I do my presentations, I try to keep them as accessible as possible. I try not to use too many big words. That way it's easier for the majority of people to follow along.)

The place Tina bowls at decides to offer a summer bowling league. Tina signs up for a house team because Tina doesn't have any friends that share her interest in bowling.

The day of the first games for the bowling league Tina meets with her team. She explains that
sometimes she can't bowl a full game because she develops sores on her left thigh because she wears an artificial left leg so she can get around without crutches. She is hoping the team would support her by bowling for her if needed so Tina doesn't develop an infection in her thigh. Her teammates agree.

Because Tina was self-aware about how she can develop sores and went ahead and disclosed to her team and asked her team for support, Tina was able to get the support she needed and prevented getting an infection in her left thigh.

House Teams Concept in Social Environments

In social environments there are organizations and businesses out there that hold leagues. But they recognize that there will be individuals who don't have enough friends or who don't know enough people that share an interest (like bowling) to form a full team. So, they'll offer what they call a "house team." What that does is allows people who can't build a team on their own the opportunity to still be included. Because they just sign up for the house team, and then the business puts them on teams.

This example is one way that social environments can work for some people with disabilities. Because being able to participate can look different for them, and this is one example of how advocating for a support need could help in this situation.

That wraps up our presentation for today.

Question and Answer Discussion

Sarah asked:
"I'm wondering how you learned all of these this information. Where did you come up with this? Because it's really good."

Jordan answered:
"Learning it the hard way is how I learned all this information that I shared to you. It is stuff that I learned personally and then stuff that I typically learned on my own by having to navigate it on my own.

I put stuff like this together in the hopes that it helps others to be able to get the support and resources they need without having to go through all the trauma and drama and frustration I had to go through."

Sarah asked:
"I think it's beautifully organized. So what did you get your college degree in?"

Jordan answered:
"For me college was one of those things that was a major trigger for my mental health and that was mostly because back when I was in college, I didn't understand the importance of having a broad support network which is something I understand now.

I got a Certificate of Completion in Audio Production because I wanted to be the sound person light for a theater where you go and watch plays, or a church, or other venue. And what I kind of learned through all that is if you can't work 12 hours a day (which I can't), and you can't climb ladders then that is not a career path for you.

And that's how I learned the hard way that if you're able to identify your support needs and clearly communicate them then it helps the employer figure out whether or not it's a good environment for you.

That was something I struggled with early on. There were times that I went through jobs that were in no way a good fit for me, but I went through all that trauma and drama and frustration to figure it out, which has been really interesting for me."

Who Benefits From this Information

Following is a list of people who could benefit from the information in this program:

  • certainly anyone who has intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD)
  • anyone who has a mental health diagnosis
  • definitely employers
  • someone is about to embark on something big like going to college
  • someone who is training for a new type of job

This program also has a worksheet that goes with it which I (Jordan Smelley) hold the copyright to.

Also I try to make my presentations as accessible as possible meaning not only easy to understand because a lot of times when I present I'm presenting to people that support people with disabilities, but also widely accessible as in the settings that it can be used in.

I hope this program provides help and support to many people in many different types of environments.

Article Notes

Jordan Smelley, PRSS, MHPS was scheduled to present the contents of this article as a workshop at Abilities Expo Dallas 2022 but, unfortunately, he missed the show due to a brief illness.

As a result, Sarah Galbraith Laucks invited him to present his workshop via video in February 2023, and then reviewed the transcript and produced the following article.

A video of this training is available on Jordan's website and directly on YouTube.  

For this article the transcript of the training has been edited to make it easier to read. Exact transcripts of video talks (or audio talks) do not always make sense in writing. When you watch a video and can hear the person speak and/or read the captions as they speak—that scenario will work because you can also see their mouth moving as you read the words in the captions. But when you read only the transcript it can be confusing. Additionally, transcripts are often auto-generated by computer systems and as a result they are not always accurate. The system may "hear" a word incorrectly and put the wrong word into the transcript.

The edits made for this article from the transcript include the following:

  • Adding capital letters at the beginning of sentences.
  • Adding punctuation.
  • Spelling out acronyms when first used.
  • Removing extra words to make the reading experience easier. Words such as: so, but, and, um. These are words that often occur when people speak but can make reading a transcript more difficult.
  • Modifying the text occasionally to help it make more sense. These modifications are identified by brackets, like this: [new text].
  • Headings and sub-headings have been added to assist people as they read the article and organize the information.

For the most part the text in the article below matches the video presentation almost exactly. The goal was to preserve Jordan's voice and way of presenting as authentically as possible.

View or Download the Presentation Slides

The presentation slides from the video presentation can be viewed and/or downloaded at this link on Jordan's website. The slides are in a PDF format which anyone can view using the free Adobe Reader software.

View or Download the Worksheet

The Worksheet mentioned in the presentation is also available to view and/or download on Jordan's website using this link. This document is in PDF format which you can view using free Adobe Reader software.

Learn more from Jordan Smelley

If you enjoy what you read in this article or hear on the video of the presentation, you can learn more from Jordan Smelley with the following:

About the Author:

Jordan Smelley is a Mental Health Peer Support Specialist in Texas and a person in long-term recovery from Intellectual and Developmental Differences with Co-occurring Mental Health challenges. Jordan partly defines his own recovery in relation to the opportunities available to present and educate the community on topics around supporting individuals with IDD. Jordan prioritizes his ability to advocate for himself and others, as well as find robust resources to address ongoing issues that may present. You can learn more about Jordan Smelley and his accomplishments by visiting his website at

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