Advocacy Days Empower Disability Community

GCDD hosted Advocacy Days at the Capitol during the legislative session this winter to let people with disabilities, their families and other stakeholders meet legislators and discuss what is important to them. Making A Difference followed up with advocates who participated in the initiative that included legislative advocacy training from GCDD Public Policy Director Dawn Alford and The Arc of Georgia’s Stacey Ramirez. Read their stories below:

DD Waivers Advocacy Day
IPSE Advocacy Day
ICWP Advocacy Day
ABLE Act Advocacy Day
Death Penalty and I/DD Advocacy Day
Employment First Advocacy Day

DD (Developmental Disability) Waivers Advocacy Day
Vikki and Christie Entrekin
Trion, GA
This was the first Advocacy Day my daughter, Christie, and I participated in. The DD Waivers Advocacy Day is not only important, but also very personal to us. We waited for two years to get waivers from the State, and there are families who have waited longer – some are still waiting. We have to advocate. We know our local Senator and Representative and wanted to meet them at the Capitol about this issue. I empower myself by researching how other states are handling the same issues and come prepared to share this information with the legislators. It is about letting the decision makers understand that people with disabilities are contributing citizens of the community. They are not asking for a free ride; they just want the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Inclusive Post-Secondary Education (IPSE) Advocacy Day
Marnie Williams
Atlanta, GA

I participated in the IPSE Advocacy Day because I work with Excel at Georgia Tech, an IPSE program at the university. I know how important it is that we have legislative support in funding and expanding IPSE programs across the State. I have seen the impact that these programs have on all students who are involved. I wanted to be sure that my voice was expressed to advocate for better support. I have seen the tremendous impact that IPSE programs can have on a student’s life – both students in Excel and degree-seeking students on Georgia Tech’s campus. It’s incredibly important that there is more financial support so that these opportunities are accessible to all students, regardless of financial status. The experience on Advocacy Day was amazing! I didn’t expect “The Ropes” to be so hectic or for the legislators to be so open to conversation. We had one legislator, Rep. Henry Howard (D – District 124), sit with our group for 15 minutes. He asked questions about who we were, what impact IPSE programs had and then finished the conversation by asking how he could help. I was blown away by his hospitality and willingness to listen. Before Advocacy Days, I never would have guessed that a representative would be so open to conversation and truly pay attention to the asks of the people he was representing. My biggest takeaway from participating in Advocacy Day was to ask clearly and boldly. Being precise and to the point is the best way to respect the legislator’s time. It’s also okay to make big asks. I have shared my experience with Rep. Howard with many people. Before participating in Advocacy Day, I did not think anything of advocating. I now see that advocacy really is important in ensuring that legislators are informed about the wants and needs of the community they are representing. The only way they will know is if we tell them, which is why I will continue to advocate. It is important to talk to your representatives. They actually listen.

Independent Care Waiver Program (ICWP) Advocacy Day
Shanta Hogan
Jonesboro, GA

I participated in the Independent Care Waiver Raise the Rate Day, along with NOW/COMP Waiver Day and Inclusive Post-Secondary Education Day. As a community activist, it is my civic duty to be a voice for the voiceless; and stand up for those who cannot say it themselves. Being my first Advocacy Day, my experience was simply amazing. I felt as if I was a part of the legislative process. The training sessions were very informative. GCDD and The Arc [of Georgia] do a wonderful job making sure that each individual feels comfortable meeting with the legislators. I plan to use the experience to educate others and assist them in any way that I can. Participating in Advocacy Days was a life-changing experience. I left feeling encouraged, motivated and empowered.

Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act
Jordan Hall
Atlanta, GA

I participated in the ABLE Act Advocacy Day, and it was the first time I advocated in this capacity. I am an individual with a disability, and as a junior at Georgia State University, the ABLE Act is an important issue for me. I learned valuable tools such as the best approach on how to speak to legislators about what issues are important to the disability community. The only way to create change is to participate and your disability can be used for empowerment. We can make a difference when we share the fight for each other’s rights.

Death Penalty and I/DD Advocacy Day
Jameca McGhee
Atlanta, GA

Coming to the Death Penalty and I/DD (intellectual and developmental disability) Advocacy Day was personal for me. My father was on death row for 22 years, and he also had a disability. Although he passed away from a stroke, I still wanted to make a difference for other people. Like many other issues, this affects the family too. Participating in this Advocacy Day gave me an opportunity to speak directly to Sen. Elena Parent (D – District 42) about the importance of this issue in the disability community. The legislators were open to listening and they really do care about these issues. I feel education is the number one way to make a difference. The more we can tell the story and how issues like these impact a person, family and community, the more we can help to change the system. I plan to take my advocacy training and use the power of social media to inform and empower other people.

Employment First Advocacy Day
Hillary Hibben, (sister), Atlanta, GA and Debbie Hibben, (mother) McDonough, GA
(advocating for Hannah Hibben)

Hillary: We participated in an Advocacy Day for Employment First Georgia (EFG). As members of Hannah’s support system, we’re no strangers to advocating on her behalf. However, for me, my advocacy has been outside the legal system. I’ve petitioned for Hannah to be treated fairly on the playground, for her to be included in “normal” school activities, for her to be addressed with dignity in restaurants, etc. And now, as Hannah transitions to a new phase of her life (i.e., finding a job/career), and as I become older and more educated, I understand “advocacy” in a new way. Hannah graduated from high school last year and has since entered Success Academy in Henry County. The goal of Success Academy is for Hannah to find gainful, supported employment. We’ve known this struggle was coming for some time – and in the short time Hannah’s been in this season of her life, the challenges have been many. There is great need for education. The EFG Advocacy Day provided a path for me to help Hannah’s voice be heard in a more formal way – in a way that I could really see change happening and steps being taken.

People with developmental disabilities want – and deserve – equal rights. Unfortunately, we’re discovering how hard it is to even get an employer to consider interviewing a candidate with so-called “special needs.” This is very much a generalization, but it seems like when an employer is approached with a prospect with developmental disabilities, a light flicks on. He gets scared. He doesn’t want to deal with (what he perceives to be) the drama, the liability, the wasted money on insufficient labor, etc. It all boils down to ignorance and fear. We’re afraid of what we don’t know. Again, this is not a notion that is new to us. It’s been something we’ve been fighting against since before Hannah was even born.

This was the first Advocacy Day for Hannah and me. Our mom has participated in previous years. The experience was very high-energy. The room of citizen advocates we were surrounded by inspired me. When we got to the Capitol Building, it was beyond bustling. It sounds cliché, but it was invigorating to get a glimpse of how our legal process works.

In our training sessions, I actually learned a lot about the EFG initiative. We can’t speak on something effectively if we’re not educated, so it was great to learn more. For example, I learned about Katie Dempsey’s efforts and how we can ask our representatives to consider voting “yes” on her proposal. We also learned why it was important to be specific about the goals of the EFG and what we’re asking the representatives for. I’d definitely participate in another Advocacy Day. Also, the experience has given me more information to use when I talk to everyday folks.

I truly believe changing one person’s perspective can change a lot. And, a large part of changing the culture takes place in our conversations and in the interactions we have with each other. I never miss an opportunity to educate someone or challenge their perspectives on individuals with special needs. And now I can speak to even more aspects of the struggle.

Debbie: As we walked toward the Capitol, the girls reminded me neither had visited there. I was flabbergasted that I, a mom of two native Georgians and public school career educator had been so “negligent.” Two highlights of the day were meeting with Sen. Rick Jeffares (R – District 17) and Rep. Andrew Welch (R – District 110), both of whom I’d met previously. Sen. Jeffares once again came “to the ropes” and unhurriedly got re-acquainted with our family; we attend the same church. He was attentive, respectful and spoke directly with Hannah. Though Rep. Welch is not from our district, he’s from the same county and has a vested interest in disability rights – having tragically lost a younger brother with a developmental disability a number of years ago. We literally “stopped him in his tracks” in the hallway and he too was patient, attentive and focused on Hannah.

As this was my second EFG advocacy day, I once again learned that our greatest asset is telling our story, “making it real” for the hearer. Hannah loves to work. She wants to work. She’s honest and dedicated – and doing a job makes her very proud. At Advocacy Day, she was also proud to talk to her representatives about her efforts to find a job. She also enjoyed being at the Capitol and learning more about the legislative process. And people noticed her. It’s important for Hannah and her support system to be present and visible.

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