Photo by Layna Hendrich of PhotographyLayn

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Advocacy: How to Make a Difference

Have you ever seen a problem and had a desire to bring about change, but you didn't know what to do? I believe this is a common problem across the country. Many people have the thought, but there is no follow through action. Sometimes this is due to laziness, but more often than not, it is due to lack of education and empowerment.

Since earning my wheels in 1999, I have been given a new viewpoint. Pre-paralysis, I never would have noticed issues that now seem to dominate my life, especially when I am in a new place. Every time I travel for a speaking event, my eyes automatically begin searching for places where change can occur, whether it be a physical change or a change in attitude.

Many physical issues are obvious, if you are wearing your "disability glasses." Most of my friends and family received this new vision soon after my accident- some new friends put theirs on after spending time with me. They tell me often, "I look at the world differently now after getting to know you." They find themselves looking at the widths of doors and hallways, checking stores for proper ramps, and investigating cars parked in handicapped spots without properly displayed placards. They catch themselves checking out public bathrooms, transportation options, and table heights at restaurants. I enjoy seeing this awareness spread, because change is definitely not a one person job.

Sometimes the physical changes are simple compared to combating the tougher battle of changing people's attitudes. Awareness begins in the mind, and affecting thoughts is a tall order. People have preconceived notions when it comes to disability rights, especially when clouded with ignorance or prior experiences that were unpleasant. They think of people with disabilities as a group that "leaches off of the government" and "causes problems for small businesses." I've heard both of these accusations, and although there are a few bad eggs in every group, these broad ranging assumptions are a key part of the daily struggle to battle ignorance.

So how do we fight? I believe with all of my heart that in order to change the attitude of others, we must first begin with our own attitudes. Ask yourself the following question- "Why am I pursuing this change?" If the answer is anything other than making life better for people with disabilities, you need to do some serious soul-searching. It is easy and normal to take discrimination personally, and inacccessibilty can often do much more than hurt your feelings. But this can often lead to feelings of retaliation, and that is dangerous ground.

I do my best to honestly evaluate situations. For example- is a building entrance not properly ramped because the owner hates people in wheelchairs and doesn't want them in his store, or is it an older building and the owner hasn't been properly educated on simple, inexpensive ways to make the store accessible? Is an airline policy written in such a way that it ties the hands of employees from assisting in a real way because the company wishes your travel experience to go horribly, or have they had so many awful experiences with negative, entitled people abusing the system that they are doing everything they can to cover their behinds in case of an unsubstantiated law suit?

Are there people and companies out there that know the law and purposefully refuse to abide by it? Absolutely- and they should be held accountable for their actions. But just as people with disabilities don't appreciate being labeled, others desire the same courtesy. So give people the benefit of the doubt. Check your own attitude- and then move forward with these simple steps for change.

#1. Educate Yourself
It amazes me how many people with disabilities either don't know what their right are, or have a very warped, incorrect view of their rights. I cringe every time I hear someone misquote the Americans with Disabilities Act or other laws in order to attempt to bring about change. If only they realized how damaging false information can be, especially when trying to persuade another person to take action.

In college, I decided to minor in Labor Studies, and I was fortunate to take several classes dealing specifically with the rights of the disabled. At that time, I had been a wheelchair user for several years, and I was still blown away by how much I learned. I know that not everyone can take college classes on the subject, but there are lots of other ways to educate yourself- most of them at no cost. Find a local advocacy or independent living center- they often provide free education. Contact your local government entity that polices accessibility and ask for educational material. If you aren't able to get out, check out reliable websites that offer free material and teaching on disability rights. Here is one of my favorite paralysis resource sites. 

It's also important to educate yourself on your local government officials. Find out who makes the decisions about public sidewalks and parking lots. Track down your local Parks & Rec director for recreational accessibility issues. Learn their names, faces, titles, and responsibilities, so that when the times comes for action, you know who the players are.

What if, in the process of educating yourself, you find out that either there is no law on the books governing your issue, or you believe the current law to be invalid or outdated? This is where a hands-on approach is needed, and it begins with knowing your state legislators. Which ones have been involved in disability rights law in the past? Who is known for their stand on civil rights? Are there currently any bills working through the government that address your issue? Any committees that deal with your area? Lawmakers are always looking for community involvement on decisions of personal significance. If they can put a face on a bill, they have a better chance of changing the law. Be that face. Get involved. Make lasting, permanent change.

#2. Educate Others
Once you have correctly and responsibly educated yourself, you are in a much better position to educate others. This new knowledge can be shared not only with others in the disability community, but also with business owners and organizations when you run into an issue that requires change. Again, most of the time, inaccessibility is caused by ignorance. Once people are properly and politely educated, you have started the process towards affecting positive change. But often, education alone is not enough- you have to reach out and build relationships.

#3. Build Relationships
Picture this scenario. I go into a local retail store that sells women's clothing. While perusing a certain section, I realize that the displays are so close together that I can't get around to view all of the merchandise. I proceed to use my wheelchair as a battering ram, knocking over racks in order to clear a wider, more accessible pathway. Sweaters and jeans go flying as I enforce my right to shop without discrimination. Now, not only can I get around the displays easier, but I have the undivided attention of every store employee (and most of the other patrons) to assist me as I continue my shopping experience.

Now, picture this. When I realize the initial navigation problem, I head up to the counter. With a smile, I introduce myself to the manager behind the register. I politely ask her if she would mind assisting me as I would like to see a shirt but am unable to get to it without rearranging a clothing rack, which I am hesitant to do on my own. I resist the urge to giggle as she falls off of her stool in a mad dash to clear every obstruction in the store, profusely apologizing the entire time. I leave the store with the shirt and several coupons to use on my next visit.

Obviously, these scenarios are two extremes, but they show the difference a relationship can make. I'm not saying that you have to invite the store owner out for coffee, but when dealing with a problem, I've had a much higher success rate for change when I have put my face to the issue. Once an introduction is made, the person is much more open to you offering education and a valid solution- especially if a large, complicated fix is in order.

This relationship process could range from a simple hello to an actual, scheduled meeting. I always try to be respectful of the business' hours of operation. For example, I wouldn't head into McDonald's at lunchtime and ask to do a 20-minute training session with the staff. If I truly want lasting change, in both obstacles and attitudes, I have to go the extra mile to build a relationship.

Building relationships with local officials is also important. Introduce yourself, set up a meeting to discuss your willingness to be involved, volunteer to be on a board that deals with disability related issues, etc. The more you are involved and connected, the better your position to make a difference.

#4. Take Action
While I truly believe that most people want to make the world more accessible, I'm not so naive that I don't understand that isn't always the case. What if you can't even get in to the building to talk to the manager? What if you ask for assistance and are met with disdain and refusal? If you've faced a similar experience, you know how disheartening and hurtful it can be. Most people would give up at this point, or start badmouthing the establishment to family and friends. Does this feel good? Sometimes. Does it change anything? Not usually.

So what can you do when you are shut down? Here are some simple steps to take to facilitate the process of change when working with those who are seemingly uninterested in what needs to be done:
  • Make a Phone Call
    • Make sure you are speaking with the decision maker. Sometimes this is a manager- other times is is the owner of the business. If you want physical changes to a building, find out if it is owned or rented by the company. Have your facts in order when you place the call. State your grievance, the law or statute that calls for the change, and a plan of action. Work with them to find a solution that benefits all parties involved, if possible. A meeting may need to be scheduled off-site in an accessible location.
  • Write a Letter
    • If you don't get anywhere with a phone call, or you don't like that option, you can always write a letter. Again, make sure it is addressed to the decision maker. State the info listed above, and give them a deadline for a response. Be professional and courteous, but make sure they know you mean business. This also leaves a paper trail for what happens when both of these options fail.
#5. The Big Guns
If you have exhausted all of your known options, or you just aren't comfortable dealing with a situation yourself, you can always contact a civil rights attorney. I know that some people are suspicious of lawyers, or they don't want to get embroiled in a "law suit," but these feelings usually stem from misinformation. Here are some facts about civil rights attorneys:
  • Most of the time, you don't have to pay anything for an initial consultation, or any of the proceeding action. Make sure you ask this up front when you call to get information, but the attorney's fees are usually paid for by the person or organization that is violating the law. If you don't win your case, the attorney usually doesn't get paid at all. 
  • If you are actually seeking financial compensation, make sure you know how much the attorney will receive out of your settlement.
  • Sometimes, a letter on a civil rights attorney's letterhead does more than a letter from an individual. Shouldn't make a difference, but that's just how it works sometimes.
  • The attorney should have more knowledge of laws and other, similar cases in your community in order to educate not only yourself, but the business owner or organization you are working with.
As always, I understand that every situation is different. The above list is not exhaustive, but it should get your brain thinking about ways to make a difference. Be your own advocate, and be willing to advocate for others. Keep your ear to the ground on current issues and national news that could affect your community. Maintain a positive attitude, and believe that change can and should occur, starting with ourselves.

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.” 

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