Educate to Advocate
“If you don’t talk with your legislators, they can’t speak for you.”
~Roddey Coe, parent advocate
Each year, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Public Policy team hosts Educate to Advocate (E2A), a community training event that provides strategies and tools to promote disability policy education and advocacy. Conducted virtually in 2021, the E2A program had an overall “virtual advocacy” focus and was attended by students, researchers, health care professionals, service providers, educators, individuals with disabilities, and family members.
Moderated by VKC UCEDD co-director Elise McMillan, the evening began with a conversation between Lauren Blachowiak, 2020-21 AUCD policy fellow and a Vanderbilt University graduate, and Bruce Keisling, executive director of the University of Tennessee Center for Developmental Disabilities. The two discussed pressing disability policy issues at the national level, how Tennesseans can assist in making an impact on the issues, and ended the segment with insights from Blachowiak’s journey from sibling to special education teacher to policy fellow at AUCD.
“I talk about my personal and professional experiences with disability when I am talking with lawmakers about the issues,” Blachowiak said. “And it is those personal experiences that they do listen to and that are so valued. Many of them don’t have that experience, yet they are making very big decisions. They want to learn and to hear from you. Own your stories and know they need to be heard.”
The theme of sharing personal experiences with lawmakers continued in the second E2A segment with Lauren Pearcy, director of public policy at the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities and Council members and parent advocates Roddey Coe and Chrissy Hood. The three shared the story of working together to draft a bill on universal changing tables, illustrating how everyday citizens can identify a need and then lead a significant legislative effort.
The last session focused on virtual advocacy strategies to utilize during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sarah Sampson, deputy director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, and self-advocate Chyna Crockett discussed the importance of staying connected with legislators during the pandemic. Virtual visits, watching committee meetings, activism on social media, and who to follow to stay up to date on the latest in disability policy and advocacy.
Click here to watch the recorded E2A webinar or see bottom of this article.
Kindred Stories of Disability: Direct Support Professionals
Another annual project of the VKC’s Public Policy Team is Tennessee Kindred Stories of Disability. Each year a collection of personal stories is produced to highlight the challenges individuals with disabilities and their families face as they navigate service systems and supports. Booklets are shared with Tennessee legislators to educate them with first-hand accounts from constituents in their districts.
The stories in this edition of Kindred Stories of Disability come from Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) living and working in Tennessee. DSPs are individuals who are employed to provide a wide range of supportive and instructional services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities on a day-to-day basis. DSPs generally attend to the health, safety, and well-being of the people they work with by providing daily personal care, teaching life skills, and supporting people to be actively engaged and working in their communities.
Across the country, there are approximately 1.4 million individuals who require services from DSPs to live full, meaningful lives in their communities. And unfortunately, the DSP workforce is in crisis. There are high turnover and vacancy rates and issues with tenure, burnout, and low hourly wages that contribute to a nationwide shortage of DSPs.
The stories were collected through interviews conducted by Vanderbilt University students. The annual project gives students, who are future educators, advocates, and researchers, an opportunity to learn firsthand from individuals with disabilities, families, and disability professionals. The images of the DSPs and their clients that accompany the stories were taken by photographer Jen Vogus and members of the AbleVoices Photography Club.
Next Steps at Vanderbilt graduate teaches class in advocacy
Caitlin Bernstein is an office assistant with the Next Steps at Vanderbilt inclusive higher education program. She is no stranger to Next Steps or to Vanderbilt, as she graduated from the program in 2015 before working at the VKC with current Next Steps faculty director Erik Carter.
Bernstein is teaching an elective course for current Next Steps students called “Sharing Your Voice.” The course will educate students on who a legislator is and what he/she does, how to identify and contact their legislators, why it’s important for people to meet with legislators, how to (and how not to) speak to a legislator, and ideas for topics to share during meetings. She also plans to share her personal stories of advocacy and attending Disability Day on the Hill.
“I want to teach this course because I think the students can benefit from learning about what Disability Day on the Hill is and how important it is for people with disabilities to speak up and be heard,” said Bernstein. “I hope that the students will take away from the class how important it is to have a voice and to talk to their legislators about issues that are important to them.”
Next Steps team appointed as Think College Policy Advocates
Hannah Humes, a freshman at Next Steps at Vanderbilt, and Megan Macon, the inclusive higher education program’s employment specialist, were selected as one of five teams to serve as Think College Policy Advocates for 2021. Sponsored by Think College and the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, Humes and Macon will have an opportunity to learn about policy and advocacy at the Virtual Disability Policy Seminar in April and will participate in virtual visits to Capitol Hill to talk with members of Congress and their staff.
Additionally, the team will be responsible for hosting a policymaker (local, State, or Federal) at Vanderbilt, creating policy “leave-behinds,” providing testimonies about their experiences with inclusive higher education, and drafting and submitting an op/ed piece or letter to the editor of the local paper.
Both Humes and Macon have an interest in policy advocacy and a desire to enhance their skills.
“I had access to the general education curriculum my entire life,” said Humes. “I like being involved, learning new things and having new experiences. I like making presentations and being an advocate for inclusive education. I will tell legislators that inclusive higher education is good for everyone on campus! It helps students in transition. It benefits degree-seeking students, professors, and everyone else on campus. Everyone will be taught something from someone and connections are made!”
“I was first introduced to Next Steps at Vanderbilt in 2012 as a freshman in college,” said Macon. “I served as an Ambassadore [peer mentor] throughout my time as a student. I experienced firsthand the importance of programs like Next Steps. Ultimately, in my time as a part of our advocacy team, I will advocate to increase awareness, expand programs, and make college more affordable to create more access for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to attend college.”
Courtney Taylor is director of VKC Communications and Dissemination.
Watch the Educate to Advocate Webinar