The term “advocacy” often elicits many different thoughts. The actual word “advocacy” is defined as “the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal.” We advocate all the time, and for many different things. Most are very worthwhile causes, and others are perhaps more trivial (have you ever voted for your favorite member of Dancing with the Stars?) We regularly engage in the act of advocacy. This article will focus on ways to effectively advocate to our elected and appointed officials, the critical importance of doing so, and how to build mutually beneficial relationships.
Advocacy and lobbying to the government are not just for some well-paid, well-dressed Washington D.C. professionals. It is for everyone, and actually is a right that we all have. This right is one of special importance to those who support loved ones living with any form of disability. Advocacy is at all levels – from Washington D.C. to your local elected or appointed officials. In this case, the term “lobbying” refers to attempting to influence the government. By supporting a cause (advocating), we are also often attempting to influence decision makers to also support this cause as well (lobbying).
We just exercised an absolutely wonderful right here in the United States: we voted. We spoke out and elected or re-elected people into office with the hope that they will represent us and make decisions that benefit us and those we serve on the issues important to our field. By identifying and communicating priorities impacting our respective human service areas, we help to inform and influence the elected and appointed officials on what they can do to advance the lives of children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
Those who serve us in public office come from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences. This often makes them well versed on a number of specific topics while having general knowledge of the rest of the topics. Many of us do not consider ourselves extremely well versed on government policy or process, however we ARE experts on the individuals with disabilities we serve and the existing or proposed legislation that affects their support structure. This expertise is vital to share with those who hold office so that they gain knowledge, and even more importantly, know where to go to get answers and gather information when necessary.
When a topic comes up, elected officials should represent the many, not the few. If a particular piece of legislation is introduced that could impact students and adults with disabilities, the more people that the legislators hear from, the more they know what the priority should be and how they should act on the issue (support/oppose) to represent us. The only way they can know what the priorities are is by hearing from us!
How can we accomplish this? The first way is by being “on the radar” – be visible, be available, and be a resource. Elected officials are used to being asked for things. But when you make yourself a resource, your communication about your cause has just become more effective. Through developing a mutually beneficial relationship, you can have a “gain-gain” scenario. When legislators hear from us, those we serve and family members, we are more likely to positively impact outcomes. In return, we become a useful source of information to legislators. When legislators are knowledgeable and supportive of important causes, this often results in their increasing popularity with constituents, and ultimately votes. A colleague uses the example of asking a friend to borrow a tool every time you see that friend. After a while any time that friend sees you, he/she will expect you only to ask for a tool, and perhaps will develop some negative feelings. But if you develop a good rapport with your friend and ask how he/she is doing and offer to help in some aspect, when you do need a tool, your friend will most likely be more than willing to share them with you and reciprocate.
Take opportunities to meet with legislators, call them, write them a hand-written note, email them and thank them for the work that they do. Let them know what is important to you. Whenever possible during the “ask” and education process, be specific with a story or example. If you know of a particular vote coming up and you want an elected official to support it, tell them you would like them to vote “yes” and why it would benefit an individual with a disability and the general public. The opposite is also true for issues that could negatively impact people with disabilities, so communicate why they should vote “no.”
Be sure to include family and friends close to the issue as part of your outreach strategy. If needed, ask them to write letters, emails or call local officials. An additional benefit of developing as wide an outreach network as possible is that one of your contacts may personally know the official and could assist in setting up a meeting. Another key resource is economic information. As part of the education process, cite specific dollar figures on how an issue will impact individuals presently served (and those on a waiting list), their families, providers in the region (reference the number of full-time equivalent employees and operating budgets) and potential job growth or cutbacks.
Some of you might be thinking I work and can’t go to events. Legislators have many different opportunities available to interact with them or their staff. The staff members who work for our elected and appointed officials are critical and exceptionally influential in the policy and position development of the legislator. Please recognize the importance of communicating with staff members. You can stop in to a local office to speak with a staff or perhaps even the legislator if they are available. Try to set an appointment if you can. Do you visit Washington D.C. on business or for a vacation? Why not take an hour and find your local Congressman’s office and stop in? Most times constituents are welcomed and whenever possible provided time with at least a staff member to say “hi.”
One easy way to stay up on what is going on with your elected officials is by signing up for an email newsletter. Most elected officials have regular email newsletters to inform you of what is happening in your area, and to provide opportunities for you to interact with them. Another great tool is to visit a local provider’s or advocacy group’s (e.g. ANCOR) website; most sites have a page (or contact person) focusing on current topics and advocacy issues. By visiting these sites regularly, you can stay informed on current events that may impact children and adults with an intellectual disability. Finally, be sure you know the current elected officials who represent you. Visit their websites and review where they stand on issues relating to our field.
We will all advocate for something at some time. Why not make it count for the people we care for and support?
Melmark is a non-profit provider of educational, therapeutic, vocational and residential programs for children and adults diagnosed with intellectual disabilities, autism and traumatic brain injury. Melmark offers program locations in Berwyn, Pennsylvania and Andover, Massachusetts. For more information, visit www.melmark.org or call 1-888-MELMARK.