Rockville, Maryland, Feb. 15 – “What can we do to advocate for people with disabilities today?” That was my question for former Texas state-representative Steve Bartlett.
Bartlett’s advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities began more than three decades ago. During most of his four terms in Congress, he was busy authoring the American Disabilities Act (ADA), and several predecessor disability rights laws. The ADA, which will boast 28 years of being a law come July 26, protects the rights of people with disabilities across a breadth of American life: employment, public accommodation, transportation, education, and more.
Bartlett also authored more than a dozen other pieces of major legislation during his congressional terms, in addition to the ADA. Many of them ensured greater independence for people with disabilities, and not just in terms of physical accessibility. He was on a number of boards keeping disability issues in mind during conversations about everything from recycling to finance.
Since I, and the rest of my RespectAbility National Leadership Spring 2018 cohort, want to become influential advocates for positive change, I thought this would be a good opportunity to learn from someone who created one of the most famous influences on the American disability world to date.
Speak, Act & Participate
“If you don’t speak up, you don’t get heard. People who get involved in causes and campaigns do affect the outcome. [In congress] all those views come together; they wrestle, they argue, they listen. They make laws.”
His first piece of advice to us on how to become a better advocate: go personal. Participate in government by booking a meeting with your representative, governor or senator. Politicians are social by nature. Engaging directly will help them personalize and connect issues to their constituents, as well as support how important those issues are.
Good elected officials, he explained, truly believe they have the country’s best interests at heart. They want to listen and incorporate multiple viewpoints into theirs.
When Your Words are Respectful, they are Heard
Facing and incorporating both sides of an issue is the best way to reach real policy decisions. You may even educate and influence someone’s views in the process. Even when we don’t agree with who we are talking to, we can learn about other viewpoints. When you argue your own side, use them in your argument; not just as ammunition but as common ground.
Bartlett finds it unfortunate that most of our political dialogue is between the ten percent of either party that sits on the extreme ends of the platform. Not only does this leave the majority opinion out, but it often results in loud, angry and ultimately fruitless battles.
Instead, we should be making clear points. When speaking to our elected officials, we should firmly list two or three simple points covering our concerns. Then listen. It is rare to have absolutely nothing in common, and listening is the first step to forming a connection. It can be hard to sit calmly and cover points rationally when it concerns something that effects your life, your liberty or your happiness. But once you form a connection, you can educate and compromise.
The best legislation, he insists, should be bipartisan. Likewise, the most successful advocacy for change also will be bipartisan. Speaking passionately to only the “side of the aisle” that agrees with you, or the side that does not, will only serve to fan the fire, not to advance the cause.
When you speak and listen, when you find common ground, do not only do it with people from one party or another. Strong legislation comes from the majority, which is only possible when it includes everyone’s representative. Even then there may be multiple viewpoints, so diversity and compromise are key.
After we finished speaking with Bartlett, I am not sure that my advocacy will have the reach of the ADA. I certainly am not fond of people yelling or telling me I am wrong to my face. But I will try to keep his points in mind next time I am on the Hill, or even on someone’s Facebook page. It is good to be reminded that the right words can be powerful.
JOIN OUR TEAM!
RespectAbility is a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. This spring, 14 Fellows had the opportunity to learn from a variety of guest speakers. Learn more about the National Leadership Program and apply for the next cohort! Contact BenS@RespectAbility.org for more information.
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