Feature Issue on Self-Advocacy for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities
Self Advocates Becoming Empowered: Magnifying Lessons Learned in Self-Advocacy
The Self-Advocacy Movement can celebrate! It has been 30 years since a group of self-advocate pioneers set a course for a national organization that would work for equality for people with disabilities. That organization would become Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE).
Regional conferences drew hundreds of participants in the late 1980s, but a group of attendees of the First North American People First Conference, in 1990, met to form a national organization. By the following year, the SABE name was in place.
SABE’s mission is to ensure that people with disabilities are treated as equals. SABE ensures people are given the same decisions, choices, rights, responsibilities and chances to speak up to empower themselves. It promotes opportunities to make new friends and learn from mistakes.
SABE’s current projects include the Self Advocacy and Technical Assistance Center (SARTAC), GoVoter Project, RRTC Employment Project, Technology Handbook II, and ongoing webinars/video blogs.
Let me share some lessons I have learned by being a part of the Self-Advocacy Movement and SABE.
I really want to address the importance of voting because SABE has done so much work in this area. We all have a right to participate and be part of determining the process of government by having our voices heard. SABE fights for voting equipment, locations and supports to make accessibility happen for all.
It is so important for everyone to get to know the candidates running for office in each state. I encourage self-advocate groups to invite candidates to speak at your meetings, sponsor a voter registration drive, and most of all, get people excited about voting. SABE is a powerful resource, as their GoVoter Project has helped so many self-advocates across the nation be more aware of rights through the project’s Distance Training webinars. SABE promotes voting rights and responsibilities, which give participants an opportunity to train others to become informed and involved voters. What I learned most of all is voting gives self-advocates power. Voting also allows for changes to happen.
I never knew how important it was to develop relationships with legislators until I connected with SABE. When I was starting to meet legislators, I felt some of them would feel sorry for me and my friends. We never wanted pity, we just wanted respect and to be treated just like everybody else. As a leader, my self-advocacy group decided to address the issue of sympathy directly with legislators. The interesting thing is, the legislators never knew they made us feel that way. Now, relationships are better. We still work hard on this matter because it is still so needed as we fight to earn respect every day. Being a part of SABE helped me speak up even when the subject is awkward. It is all about speaking up! If we do not use our voices for political change, then no change will come. The more self-advocates develop these legislative relationships, the louder our voices will be heard. Legislators must know that our stories are worth telling. As self-advocates, we need to be prepared to speak and make sure we say what we mean. Eye contact is important, too. SABE refers to this type of communication as “elevator conversations,” meaning short, clear statements that make your point fast. Then you thank the legislator for the time and write a thank-you note. My first experience with this happened in Washington, D.C., and it worked! I’ve done this in South Carolina, too, through my connection with SABE.
Through SABE, self-advocates can also do more through technology. I used to be scared of technology. I did have a cell phone, which I used to talk to friends, receive emails, and conference calls, but nothing more. SABE helped me to push into using other electronic devices.
I co-chaired the Southern Collaborative, Our Community Standing Strong Project (OCSS), a regional technical assistance project grant by the Administration on Intellectual Developmental Disabilities. Through work on OCSS, many self-advocates have grown more comfortable with a technology handbook that is user-friendly and helps us understand how things work and what is possible. The handbook provides instructions, guidance and just basic technical support. Thanks in part to that handbook, I got very involved with videoblogging, hosting webinars, Google hang-out, Facetime, and other technology accessories. I was amazed at my own abilities. Most importantly, the handbook was written by self-advocates, which makes me prouder. This handbook can be found on the SABE website as a resource for everyone. Technology can help self-advocates connect with their friends and grow your group’s technology skills. I am no longer scared of technology.
Cultural diversity is another lesson learned. I did not know anything about this subject until SABE supported me in participating in Georgetown University’s project on Leadership & Cultural Diversity. This meaningful experience opened my eyes to how people with intellectual disabilities are labeled in society. It made me remember how I was bullied in school because I sounded different, acted differently, walked differently, and learned differently. I was in the special classes, where people picked on me all day. When I expressed this story with the project, it gave me an opportunity to release my feelings that I had held in for so many years. I discovered I was less privileged in my school years. It also let me know how important it is to share stories to help others understand people with intellectual disabilities and what we may go through in life. Everyone should strive to create an environment that is welcoming for all. The project was so well done, it gave others who participated an opportunity to work on overcoming challenges. It helped us all discover that no matter your gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity, everyone matters. No matter your background, everyone contributes.
I have learned also that my experience in self-advocacy has helped me to gain self-confidence and become a national speaker to groups all over the nation. I gained all this from watching the strong self-advocates in SABE who speak up, become leaders, work together and make a difference on issues that are important to people.
SABE has driven me to believe in myself. SABE colleagues saw in me what I did not see in myself and never doubted my abilities. They gave me so much encouragement and that made me a stronger leader, able to overcome my challenges. I know now that this knowledge is powerful and I can share it with the world. We must make self-advocacy count and get others to see its value.
While I have shared only a few lessons learned from SABE, I am thankful for the many rich experiences that have helped shape my life. I have made mistakes along the way, which made me fight harder and not give up. You can get that kind of strength when you are involved with SABE. Together, we can build a culture of support for all.