June 8, 2011

by: Tammy Gibson Willet

Being a Good Advocate

The UCP community believes that every individual has the right to be as independent and productive as possible.  We believe that all people have the right to experience life at its fullest and participate as a part of their community.  Often times, making this a reality involves being an advocate for either ourselves or others. 

Being a successful advocate for yourself or a family member can be a daunting task.  Some people are naturally better at advocacy than others.  Strong advocates are not easily intimidated by difficult people or situations and who may have an easier time speaking in front of others.  But anyone can become an  effective advocate with a little preparation, patience and passion.   

There are a number of good practices that will help you to become an effective advocate.  These practices can be broken down into four main areas: preparation, communication, note taking and follow up.  It is important to remember that what you may need to do as an advocate may depend greatly on the issue or situation.  Some situations will be more difficult and trying.  They may require action over a period of weeks, months, or sometimes years.  Other situations may be resolved more easily and therefore require less effort. 

When you are speaking to others about an issue concerning yourself or your family member with a disability, it may become difficult to get your point across. Follow these tips to communicate effectively:

1.  Remember that information is power.  The more that you can inform yourself about a particular issue or situation the better you will be able to speak on behalf of yourself or your family member.  Depending on the situation, you may need to become more knowledgeable about your rights, how different service systems operate, how others have achieved similar things for themselves and so on.  

2. Before going into a meeting, write down what you want to say beforehand. Having the main points about what you want to tell others will help you stay on track. Sometimes emotions get the best of us and we may forget what we had planned to say.

3. Be polite, short and clear. When speaking, try to keep your statements as short as possible. This will help the listener hear all of what you are saying. Often times when you try and say too many things at once others will only focus on one issue, which may not be the point you want to make.

4. Stay on Topic. If you are communicating with someone for a specific reason, stay on that topic. For example if you are at a hearing on Medicaid, it is not the best time to speak about your child’s Early Intervention Plan or your frustration with special transit.

5. Use a calm voice and tone. It is not just what you say but how you say it. While you may be angry or upset, it is important to take a deep breath and calmly address the issue. If you feel yourself getting upset, ask for a moment to leave the room and take a deep breath.

6. Ask questions. If you don’t understand what is being said, it is ok to ask questions. You can also ask for specific information if others are not being clear.  Feel free to ask the person to explain their position in a different way.

7. Make sure others understand you. When speaking, make sure the other person understands the point you are making. Ask them if you have made your position clear and if they need further information on the topic you are speaking about. Here is where a short, specific anecdote would fit in well.

8. Listen to others. When others are talking we often are simultaneously trying to think of what we want to say. Don’t miss an opportunity to hear what the other person is saying, even if you don’t agree with them.

9. Identify some possible solutions that you see as workable.  Sometimes, solutions may not be easily identified or can only be identified by talking things through with others.  

10.  If possible, identify what you are willing to accept if you cannot get exactly what you want.  This will require thinking about what you may be willing to compromise with.  This is not always easy but it is sometimes necessary.  Having a “fall back” position will allow you to still negotiate for something that may be acceptable, even if it is not the perfect solution. 

11. Recap the conversation. End the conversation by verbalizing what has been agreed upon and who is responsible for each next step. Follow up with a letter or email in writing.

12.  Keep a notebook or a diary to record your discussions.  Whether you have talked with someone on the telephone or in person, it is important to keep track of the name, contact information and title or position of the person with whom you spoke.  Also, record the date and any responses you have received.  This information will be particularly helpful to you if you need to do a follow up or talk with someone else who is higher in the “chain of command” within an organization, government or company.

13.  Keep a file of written responses and other documents.  Sometimes you will receive written responses to requests or will want to ask for a written response.  This may be in the form of letters or emails.  It is important to keep track of these in case you need them in the future.  Sometimes, people will say or promise things verbally but not later act upon.  Having a written record of what was agreed to may be very helpful.  Also, when a request is being refused, it is helpful to have the refusal (preferably with the reasons for the refusal) spelled out in writing.  This may be particularly important if you are asking someone else to review the decision or have the opportunity to make an appeal. 

14. Continue to follow up until you feel that your issues have been resolved to your satisfaction.

15.  Know your rights and the dispute resolution structure of the organization, government or company with which you are dealing.  Sometimes, following up on your issues may require that you talk with a more senior person in the organization.  This person may have more authority to make decisions or may have an interest in helping you resolve your issue. 

Remember, you are the expert on yourself or your family member.  Keep focused on the “big picture” – remember what is truly important to you.

And advocate for it!

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