November 2019

Advocacy for All: Serving Students with Disabilities

By Taqueena Quintana, Ed.D., and Jenna Alvarez, Ph.D.
Advocacy is at the forefront of our profession and school counselors are equipped to advocate for student success. The ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors for school counselors outline that as a profession, we are charged with serving all students through the implementation of evidence-based practices and comprehensive school counseling programs. Through advocacy efforts, school counselors can take steps to ensure students with disabilities are thriving in culturally responsive environments that support their unique needs. In efforts to serve all students, specifically those with disabilities, to support academic, career and social/emotional development, understanding disability-related legislation is imperative.

Ethics and the Law

School counselors must be well informed of legal mandates in supporting students with disabilities. Laws including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act–IDEA (1997) and its 2004 reauthorization, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, charge schools with the responsibility of protecting the rights of, meeting the individual needs of, and providing a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities. These laws provide guidance in the development and implementation of the Section 504 plan – which provides access and support to students with disabilities in the general education environment through accommodations – and the Individualized Educational Program (IEP), a plan that outlines specialized individual instruction for students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment.

We also have an ethical obligation to adequately support students with disabilities. The 2016 American School Counselor Association’s Ethical Standards for School Counselors provides guidelines in areas including advocacy, confidentiality, cultural competence, equitable access, support for underserved/at-risk populations and respect/dignity for students with disabilities. It is our legal and professional responsibility to advocate for students with disabilities.

Understanding Perceptions

An essential step in understanding how to support students with disabilities is to understand the various perceptions that can surround being identified as an individual with a disability. Students may experience feelings of isolation and inferiority associated with the perceived shortcomings of their disabilities. According to 2017 study by Chad Rose and Nicholas Gage, students with disabilities are often bullied at a rate disproportionate to that of their peers. These authors recommended social and emotional training for students with disabilities related to engagement with their peers. School counselors are uniquely positioned to engage students with disabilities in individual or small-group counseling centered around psychoeducational practices of educating students on how to socially engage with peers and how to identify and report bullying.

In her 2006 article, Amy Milsom discussed how school counselors can promote systemic change by creating an inclusive school environment that addresses attitudes and perceptions that directly impact the educational experiences of students with disabilities. Through their school counseling programs, school counselors can form cultural practices that extend beyond race and ethnicity to include students with disabilities. For example, the school counselor can provide support to students with disabilities who experience ableism through counseling, professional development for teachers, and mentoring programs for peers to build acceptance and understanding.

Promoting Advocacy

School counselors are key agents, both directly and indirectly, in promoting advocacy with and for students with disabilities. Directly, school counselors can support students with disabilities in helping them recognize their strengths and develop self-advocacy skills. These skills can assist students in navigating through systemic barriers and difficult experiences imposed on them due to stigma and/or ignorance about disabilities. Group counseling can promote social/emotional development and allow students with disabilities the opportunity to enhance their problem-solving skills through interpersonal support from their peers. Classroom lessons can provide psychoeducational experiences exploring topics including diversity, conflict resolution, bullying and respect. In addition to individual and group counseling and classroom lessons, school counselors can support students with disabilities indirectly by:
  • Collaborating with school-based teams to ensure appropriate services for students with disability-related educational plans (i.e. IEP, 504 plans)
  • Connecting families to resources including community, mental health, service providers and support networks
  • Transition planning (e.g., vocational, employment, housing, etc.) for students ages 17–21
  • Educating staff through consultation and professional development opportunities
  • Helping to develop a school climate that is welcoming and supportive of students with disabilities
The school counselor’s role is essential in advocating for students with disabilities. In paving the way for students with disabilities, school counselors are helping to ensure that all students are supported. Below is a list of resources that may be helpful in enhancing your school counseling program as you work to support students with disabilities.

Training: ASCA U’s Students with Special Needs Specialist
Text: ASCA National Model (fourth edition) and Implementation Guide
ASCA Position Statement: The School Counselor and Students with Disabilities
Article: Creating positive school experiences for students with disabilities. Professional School Counseling (2006), by Amy Milsom

Taqueena S. Quintana, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, BC-TMH, is an assistant professor at Arkansas State University where she serves as the School Counseling Program practicum and internship coordinator for school counselor trainees. She is a licensed school counselor in New Jersey, Maryland and the District Columbia. She is also a licensed professional counselor in the District of Columbia. Contact her at tquintana@astate.edu.

Jenna M. Alvarez, Ph.D., LSC, LPC, is an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati where she coordinates the School Counseling Program and serves as the field coordinator for school counselor trainees. She is a licensed school counselor and a licensed professional counselor in Ohio. Contact her at alvarejm@ucmail.uc.edu.