Ongoing Learning Opportunity Recap

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How do we open the conversation with people about the possibility of becoming a citizen advocate, or begin to provide orientation to someone simply thinking of learning more about Citizen Advocacy in general?

We opened our gathering by going around the room having each participant introduce themselves and share something, whether it be about their career or life accomplishments. From that, we posed the question, “What is a good life?” There was some conversation stimulated around the specific roles that people hold in their own lives, and in community and civic life.

Common responses were a job, a nice home, family, security, health, freedom to choose, to pursue one’s passions and interests. There was a consensus that these things lead to “The Good Life,” and in that world, people play many different roles, like employee, homeowner, spouse, parent, church member, gardener, photographer, and so on.

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After taking a look at some of the highly agreed upon elements of what people value in society and what constitutes a good, desirable life, we then turned to a point of thinking about the qualities that society does not value, and consequently how that ends up shaping life for people who live with the label of “developmental disability,” who are forced into special education and programs that separate people from typical circles in community life.

Disability is actually the disadvantage that people face due to barriers to access to things like work and education—rather than inherent inferiority and/or incompetence. The larger culture’s stereotypical depictions of people with disabilities would have us believe:
• People with disabilities are “better off” or “prefer to be with their own kind.”
• People are really just big children (which is comes through when a person
says, “That’s so-­‐n-­‐so. He is 42, but mentally he is only 6.”)
• The idea that people are violent or dangerous and that only the trained
professionals should interact with them.

When these ideals go unquestioned or unchallenged, they lead to self-­‐fulfilling prophecies and an extremely limited sense of possibility. It leads to people being rejected, not taken seriously, living in highly restrictive settings, having their life wasted, and being understood as a set of deficiencies and problems to be fixed—
rather than being seen through the lens of capacity, aptitude, gifts, skill sets, and the person’s own dreams and desires.

In light of this very whelming and grim truth about the common life experiences of people with disabilities, we led the conversation in the direction of So what do we do about it?

The Citizen Advocacy model was developed, not to try to solve these very big societal problems, but to try to address certain aspects of them by involving ordinary local citizens as spokespersons in the lives of people with disabilities. Creating intentional one-­‐on-­‐one relationships between individual people is the specific advocacy strategy. There are a few key ideas that frame the work:
• Advocacy relationships are freely given, meaning advocates do not receive payment, credit, compensation, and are therefore free to speak up to the greatest degree possible on the other person’s behalf;
• Relationships are intended to be long-­‐lasting. Many people who rely on social or human services do not have friendships outside of the world of disability services. Therefore, we are not looking to recruit advocates for a short-­‐term project;
• Relationships are to be independent of—yet supported by—the Citizen Advocacy office. Advocates are not volunteers for the program, but rather are free-­‐standing citizens who were invited and then chose to be involved in another person’s life;
• Advocates are asked to think about presenting people in ways that are dignified and enhancing to counter some of the pervasive negative images and stereotypes that surround people with disabilities (that they are eternal children, or burdens of pity or charity…)

We rounded out the day by posing 3 “Pictures of Possible”—short stories of real people we know who are in real life advocacy relationships, sometimes sailing and
sometimes stumbling their way through. We chose 3 stories that we thought captured “What’s worth moving away from” through “What is worth working toward.” Less segregation, more community is one conversation that never goes away. One final piece of food for thought was to distribute the handout The Importance of Belonging by a leading thinker, David Pitonyak.

The material presented in this gathering was adapted from a workshop called Power of Roles, stemming from the school of thought called Social Role Valorization.