Becoming an effective advocate may require learning about good advocacy practices as well as having a lot of patience and perseverance. Some people are naturally better at advocacy than others. Those who tend to be better advocates are people who are not easily intimidated by difficult people or situations and who have little difficulty in speaking up for themselves or others. Some people, however, learn to be good advocates over time (often because they feel they have to be to achieve good things for their child).
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, documentation or 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.
Below are a few tips that you can consider as you advocate on behalf of your child.
Good preparation is a very important aspect of effective advocacy. Here are a few tips to help you become more prepared:
- 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 your child. Depending on the situation, you may need to become better informed about your child’s rights, how different service systems operate, how other families have achieved similar things for their child, and so on.
- As noted above, have specific goals or things you would like to achieve for your child. Sometimes goals can be broadly stated (for example, to help my child find a job) but goals may also be much more specific. Good preparation usually involves trying to be as specific as possible about what you want to achieve and, if possible, what specific actions you would like to see happen.
- Identify the key issues or problems that you and your child are encountering.Often, people with disabilities face barriers that may result from other people’s attitudes, a lack of effective supports and services, etc. When you are able to clearly identify the problems or barriers that may exist, you can focus your advocacy on what needs to be addressed.
- 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.
- 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.
- Identify people who may be able to help you. Often, advocacy is more effective if you have allies. This may be simply someone who agrees to attend a meeting with you to support your cause or to simply take notes. It may also be someone who has some particular expertise in the issue you are dealing with or in advocating for people with disabilities (for example, a volunteer or a staff person from a disability organization). Remember, being a good advocate does not mean that you have to do everything on your own.
- Identify the people that you need to talk with to achieve results for your child.These may be people who have some authority to make some decisions or who can help make things happen. Depending on the circumstances, key people might include someone who works for government, a politician, someone from a service agency, an employer or a human resource manager in a company, and so on.
Effective advocacy also requires good communication. Communication can take many forms including phone calls, face to face meetings, group meetings, letters and emails. Here are a few tips to remember about communication:
- Be clear and concrete. This means making sure that your messages or requests are stated as clearly and briefly as possible. If your message or request sounds confused, other people may not know what it is that you want for your child. What is the most important information that you need to convey? At times, other information may be useful to support your request. Too much information, however, may get you side tracked on other issues that may not be as important.
- Be assertive. When you communicate with others, they should understand that you have expectations that you expect to achieve. Assertive communication also means talking in a firm (but not harsh) tone of voice. In face to face meetings, try to keep your body erect but also relaxed and use eye contact. Remember that assertive communication is not aggressive.
- Listen carefully to what other people are saying. Listening is simply a respectful way to communicate. This means paying close attention to what people are trying to tell you and not interrupting when other people are talking. In addition, listening may also provide you with information or clues about how to solve a problem or to get what you want for your child.
- Ask questions. If something is not clear to you, ask for a better or clearer explanation. Asking questions is also a good way to get valuable information that may assist you in your advocacy. Asking questions may also be a useful way to have a conversation with someone who may be able to help you. A key part of effective advocacy is building good relationships with people who are in the position to make decisions or to offer help. If possible, prepare the questions you want to ask before a conversation or meeting.
- Where appropriate, use stories or visual ways to communicate information.Often, people remember personal or other kinds of stories more then anything else. Stories can be helpful in providing a sense of the real life issues that may be at stake. They can also be helpful by providing examples of how situations or issues may be resolved.
Documentation and Note Keeping
Keeping good notes and records can be a great aid to the advocacy process. Here are some tips that may be helpful:
- 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.
- 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.
Often, advocacy does not provide immediate results. Some situations may require persistence and effort to achieve success or have things resolved. Often the adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” is very true when families are trying to accomplish things for their child with a disability. Keep the following points in mind:
- Try not to be too frustrated or intimidated if you are not getting the response or results that you are seeking. Continue to follow up until you feel that your issues have been resolved to your and your child’s satisfaction.
- Sometimes, following up your issues may require that you talk with a more senior person with the organization. This person may have more authority to make decisions or may have an interest in helping you resolve your issue.
- At some point, you may feel that you have done all you can on your own.Following up your advocacy may require that you involve other people, particularly from a disability organization to assist you.
- When dealing with government systems or agencies, you may need to contact elected officials. This kind of follow up should normally be done only when you have gone through all of the regular channels in the government system.
- Lastly, there may be times that you are not successful no matter how hard you try. Remember that advocacy is about negotiation. What are the things that you are willing to compromise with or settle for if you cannot get what you want or need? Sometimes, the next best solution is better then no solution at all.