To Raise Up An Advocate

In the fall, I attended an all-grantees meeting in Harrisburg, PA. I was there as a board member of Self Advocates United as 1, a disability self advocacy group which centers people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Every one of our board members has a developmental and/or intellectual disability. I do other work with the group, but my purpose that weekend was in my role as a board member. I wasn’t well for about half the meeting, but towards the end I was approached by the woman who administers our grant. She asked me a question that I’m finally well enough to answer: how do we keep bringing in new youth? Did I have any unique ideas?

I told her I didn’t know if I had any unique ideas about bringing in youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities right now. There is a lot of organizing out there around youth issues, and I didn’t have anything especially new to add beyond referrals. But they aren’t really enough. Unfortunately many youth with these disabilities end up having either not been taught the skills involved at a young age, have overprotective and fearful parents/guardians hesitant to support their full participation, or parents that cling to the idea that their child or young adult isn’t able to do the level of self advocacy involved and that they must be their child’s voice forever. These are all really not the best outcomes when we want specifically youth voice from this population.

I did, however, tell her a little bit about what I thought could change this in the future. Here are some things that I think that we, as communities, systems, and as advocates, can do to make sure there are well supported youth advocates with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the future. Most of them are things that my own mother did for me, even when other people told her it was pointless. Some are things I’ve learned through observation of both self advocates and from parents. Either way, my experiences lead me to believe that these steps will  help.

We need to start telling parents when they first start out that it is possible for their child to become advocates. That even if they need extensive supports for the rest of their lives, advocacy is something that is important. It’s important in a personal context especially when you rely on others for your support. I’ve met few parents of kids and young adults with disabilities who haven’t worried what will happen when they are no longer the ones providing support. One of the ways to help mitigate the risks we have as a vulnerable population is to teach your child, starting young, how to advocate for themselves. Needing help understanding complex things, not speaking, or having extremely limited mobility don’t make it impossible to learn these things. Needing to learn it over and over again, or taking a very long time to learn them, doesn’t mean that they can’t and shouldn’t work on learning these skills. Self-advocacy is a survival skill. And a lot of the pieces that we learn in self advocacy can be used or built on in doing broader advocacy. 

We need to start teaching the foundations of these skills young. Let’s be honest- it takes a lot of people with disabilities like mine or like those of my fellow board members to learn things. Some of us need steps broken down a lot more, while others will just need taught the same steps over and over again, possibly for years. All of that is okay. It’s okay to take longer to learn things. What’s not okay is the emphasis too many people are taught on compliance based training- teaching skills that teach one to be more compliant and to eventually become an easier client to handle.

There are some other posts out there that can tell you about the effects of this kind of training and why it’s dangerous. I want to talk real quick instead about how this is contradictory to teaching advocacy, let alone self advocacy, skills. Compliance training, when it comes down to it, teaches you that the wants of other people are more important than what you feel you need- either to survive or to do your best. It also includes prioritizing the perceptions of others over your own lived reality- that other people are the authority on what you should do and what your life should look like so you should just sit down and shut up. You are taught to deprioritize your needs and your autonomy, starting with minor things and lead up to larger things like, say, if you are okay living in such and such facility instead of another setting, or working for peanuts. Additionally, your motivation to seek out alternatives is squashed, meaning that what ability to come up with your own solutions- which some of us might need support with to begin with- you have is made to stagnant. You end up being trained to be a better client, to be less “inconvenient” for those around you. You make yourself small.

ALL of these things are pretty much the opposite of self advocacy and advocacy skills. While we should be taught to consider others, it should be in making our own plans about our lives and how we can incorporate or work with the needs of those around us. It should be by trying to figure out how their experiences fit with ours rather than a substitution. And above all, learning to identify and come up with solutions to problems (and learning when we need help doing so) is something that can’t be taught effectively when compliance training is on the menu- and is one of the longer term skills that we need to eventually learn to be effective advocates. While some of us will always need extensive help doing these things, I fully believe that it is worth it.

We need to create situations of controlled risk- situations that are safe, but that allow both young people and our parents to experience risk and adjust to it. Risk is a part of being alive, of making our own choices. But there’s risk being taken even if we aren’t the ones making the decisions- it just somehow becomes more scary for parents when their children are the ones doing it. Slowly increasing the amount of risk we allow our kids according to what is safe is something all parents face. Acting as though those frightening parts of parenting- and yes, I understand that it is frightening!- don’t apply because your child will need supports the rest of their lives is not okay. By preventing (controlled) risk, you hamper the ability to learn how decision making works, as well as the realities of having consequences of our decisions. This doesn’t mean you do nothing to protect your child! It means that you need to be weighing from the beginning what the risks might be, and modeling the process of deciding what an acceptable risk is. It might start out with something very small, like the natural consequences of eating candy before dinner, and it might take a long time. But without there being any risk- even risk that you might be able to mitigate- we can’t really say that someone is making a real choice. Even if your child never gets beyond controlled and mitigated risk, it’s important to take that step and learn what both positive and negative consequences are and how to deal with them. You will end up feeling better about the decisions your child makes as an adult, and your child will have had the chance to become better at making those decisions.

We need to teach parents that part of their role is learning to switch from advocating for their children to either advocating with or supporting the advocacy of their children. When your child is young, you will indeed need to advocate for your child. Sometimes this part of being a parent lasts longer than others. But at some point you need to expect to switch to having your child become the advocate. Yes, there will absolutely be times that you will have to support your child, even extensively. Yes, there will be people who will not listen unless you, the parent that they perceive as “able,” repeat it. Yes, if your child has a very difficult to understand communication style you might have to act as or teach another person to act as an interpreter for the uninitiated. (My colleague Debbie and her daughter Amber- also a colleague- deal with this a lot when Amber does policy advocacy!) Yes, depending on your child there may be issues that have additional levels of complexity that they can’t quite get their heads around. But all of these challenges are why we need you to support our efforts, and to work with us.

Our opinions and perspectives are important when we talk about our lives. As your children become adults, we need you to understand that the work is not mainly about you- it’s about us, the young people with disabilities. You are our allies, not self advocates yourself, and we need you to respect that that is your role. It can be hard to hear that, or so I have been told by a lot of parents in a lot of different ways. But we want you on board. We want your support, your blessing, and, yes, your love. Though we will try to fight on without those things, we do want them from you- and as we go forward we, and the projects we tackle together, will flourish from it.

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