Why YOU Should be a Disability Advocate

In a recent class discussion, I asked my students what advocacy, community service, or non-profit organizations they were involved in and what prompted them to do so. Young Americans get a lot of flack, but you’d be surprised how many are fully committed to various causes. Social justice issues are “the new sexy” and students often pressure their peers into doing something that matters.

When I ask them these questions, most of the time there really is an important reason they volunteer for “this or that” cause. They love animals so volunteer at the SPCA. Their mom died of cancer so they volunteer and walk for a Susan G. Komen breast cancer event. They work twice a month at a soup kitchen because they have been hungry before. We normally have a connection to what we advocate for and this reason drives our passion and commitment. “Volunteer Power” explains that #1 reason people get involved in something is because that “something” meets their needs (Volunteer Power, 2017).

I am a long-time advocate for the disability community. It’s hard to say if I would be doing what I am if I weren’t a person with disability myself. Because my issues are not singular, I like to think that if it hadn’t been, A) acquired deafness, that got me involved, it would have eventually happened anyway because of B) Meniere’s disease and C) Post-concussive syndrome. 

I don’t think people realize how powerful advocacy – big or small – is for groups that are the same AND different than you are. “No Stigmas” explains how powerful the advocacy of those who do so on behalf of others… for groups that have nothing in common with who they are as an individual. Why? Experts believe that passionate advocacy can be mistaken for self-serving bias (No Stigmas, 2017). The more I learn about people with disability, the more I am convinced it is all of our responsibility to advocate for this population. May I try to convince you of the same?

How Many of Us Have Disabilities?

In the United States, 24.4% of the population over the age of 18 has a disability (CDCP, 2016b). Y’all? That’s nearly 1 in 4 people! The Disability and Health Status Systems and supporting research suggest that 17% of those living with disability have a congenital condition (CDCP, 2016b), while the remaining 83% have an acquired disability. An acquired disability is defined as a limitation in normal function of vision, hearing, movement, thinking and remembering, learning, communication, mental health, or social relationships (CDCP, 2016a). Many acquired disabilities are easily identified as visible assistive devices, tools, or mitigating technology are used by the individual to mitigate limitations. Numerous acquired disabilities are considered invisible or non-obvious and are only apparent to others should the individual choose to disclose their diagnosis. Whether acquired disability is visible or invisible, an individual may find themselves coping with both new stresses and new opportunities for growth.

Advocating on behalf of people with disabilities–even if you are not a part of this population–means you are very likely doing so on behalf of someone you know. Advocacy doesn’t mean you have to volunteer 15-20 hours a week for a cause. Advocacy can include that, but most of the time it means being someone’s friend. It may mean that when you are on hiring panels, you remind others of the value of hiring someone with a disability. Joni and Friends (2017) explain that hiring people with disabilities has the following advantages:

• Including qualified employees with disability in your workforce communicates a strong message of inclusion to your local community.
• Employees with disability often make good team players – that means increased productivity in work groups.
• To include someone with a disability diversifies your workforce, creating a stronger appeal to a diverse consumer base.
• Employees with disabilities often enjoy a long tenure with a company and are less likely to resign or quickly move on to another job.
• A job can mean a great deal to an individual with a disability and translate into equal or higher job performance rates.
• Employees with disability are usually happy to work on creative solutions regarding reasonable accommodation or restructuring of job hours.
• Including someone with a disability in your work force raises the bar on everyone’s awareness and sensitivity toward someone facing hardships (para. 3).

Advocacy can mean support during national awareness walks or campaigns for a disability group. It can mean choosing not to use derogatory language when referencing a disability group, nor allowing others to do so (See A-Z Derogatory Terms).
“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth” (William Faulkner).

You Will Likely Eventually Be a Member of This Group

Finally, you will very likely be a person with disability one day. Making a difference NOW, simply establishes a foundation for self-advocacy and “right thinking” later. Let’s do a little exercise (something I learned from my ADA Leadership Network training):

Below… pick a person who is not “RED” yet. The red indicates someone with a disability. Pay attention to who you pick and don’t cheat and switch it up later! Pick one person:

In the USA, 10.4% of Americans have a disability if they are the ages 15-24 years. Now let’s bump up an age group. Find your SAME person:

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In the age group of 25-44 years, that percentage moves to 11.4%. Does your chosen person have a disability yet? Let’s get older:

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45 – 54 years, the percentage of Americans with a disability moves to 19.4%

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55-64 years, we are now at 30.1%

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65-69 years, we are now at 37.4%

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70-74 years – 43.8%

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Should you live 75-79 years, the rate grows to 55.9% of Americans. Did the person you pick, end up “red” by the end?

Y’all? If you do not struggle with normal function in some aspect now, chances are as you age – you will. Develop relationships and advocacy “know how” NOW, even before you need it.

So? Have I convinced how important it is for ALL of us to advocate for disability rights, inclusion, and normalcy? If I haven’t – that’s ok. However, I hope at the very least you come away with a little more information about an often times marginalized group. As always, thanks for reading!

Sincerely,

L. Denise Portis

©2017 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015a). Disability and health. Retrieved March 30, 2016, from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/types.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016b). Disability and health data systems (DHDS). Retrieved March 30, 2016, from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/dhds.html

Joni and Friends. (2017). Disability and employment. Retrieved March 21, 2017, from http://www.joniandfriends.org/blog/disability-employment/

No stigmas. (2017). How to be an advocate for others. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from https://nostigmas.org/peer-advocacy/

Volunteer Power (2017). Why people volunteer. Retrieved March 19, 2017, from http://www.volunteerpower.com

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