COMMUNITY ADVOCACY OR SYSTEMS CHANGE
Nothing about us without us!
Can you tell which person above has a mental health disability, multiple chemical sensitivities or chronic back pain?
Ability360 and all other Centers for Independent Living are involved in changing systems to make them more “user” friendly and responsive to our needs. Independent Living and Self-Determination philosophy stresses the importance of people with disabilities being in decision-making roles about programs that are for their benefit.
Community Advocacy involves removing barriers and increasing access to the community for all people, including people with disabilities. Our method to affect community change is to work in partnership with other individuals and organizations that have the same concerns and goals. Ability360 gets involved when consumers come to us with community situations that present barriers to them. When we become aware that the problem isn’t an individual problem but rather a problem for many others, we gather interested parties together to develop an advocacy plan to solve the problem.
Here are examples of issues that required Community Advocacy:
• Inaccessible movie theaters
• Social Security disability rules that make it hard to go to work and keep necessary health care
• The Department of Motor Vehicle policy of making some people provide a doctor’s approval before issuing a driver’s license
• The need for a door opener at the bank or mall food court
• Accessible airport shuttle vans
• Service policies that do not reflect self-determination and consumer choice
• Civil rights protection from employment discrimination
• Sufficiently accessible public transit
What is Systems Change or Community Advocacy?
Let’s start with a story to illustrate community advocacy…
There is an old advocacy story about a place where people started noticing that babies were floating down the river alone. They started fishing the babies out of the water one by one. But the babies kept coming and soon there were many people fishing babies out of the water. Finally, one person shouted in frustration, “That’s it! I have had it!” and walked away. Shocked, someone called after her, “Are you walking away from these babies that need saving?” The person replied, “No, I am going upstream to find out who is throwing these babies in the river and I am going to stop them!” With that, several others took off up river to help her.
Systems change involves noticing a trend and searching for the source of the barrier or problem in order to eliminate it at its source. This might mean talking to the person in charge, changing pubic policy or changing the law.
EXAMPLES OF COMMUNITY ADVOCACY OR SYSTEMS CHANGE
INACCESSIBLE MOVIE THEATERS – Ability360 had received complaints about movie theaters with accessible seating only in the back. The team was also told embarrassing stories of consumers wanting to sit with friends closer to the screen but being told they presented a “fire hazard” sitting in the aisle. Ability360 responded to these complaints and stories by helping the consumers meet with the theater owner at Ability360. The group of consumers was able to voice their concerns and the theater owner created more accessible seating. In other instances, consumers have actually used the Americans with Disabilities Act to successfully advocate with national theater chains to improve accessible seating.
DRIVING– A few years ago, Arizona advocates were successful in fighting a proposed policy of the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division (MVD) that would have given their staff the authority to require a person to get a medical clearance before getting a driver’s license. Advocates felt this practice was discriminatory, especially since the MVD staff would be making a judgment based on their viewpoint and not on medical expertise. It was felt that a better practice was to simply ask the consumer to perform a driving test, like they do with non-disabled persons. Ability360 was instrumental in alerting advocates, who then testified at several hearings on the topic. The MVD policy was not instituted.
INACCESSIBLE SHUTTLE VANS – Ability360 responded to complaints that shuttle vans which transport consumers from the Phoenix Airport to Tucson were not accessible. We knew that the ADA required them to provide accessible transportation if they provided a public business, so we first informed the service of its obligations under the ADA, verbally and in writing. When they did not respond after several attempts, Ability360 and several consumers filed a complaint with the Arizona Attorney General’s (AG) office under the ADA. The AG’s office negotiated a settlement with the shuttle company, which promised to supply accessible transportation. Ability360 then followed up to ensure that they did provide the service required.
SELF-DETERMINATION – Ability360 staff and advocate volunteers have participated on many policy-making bodies within the Arizona Division of Developmental Disabilties and Vocational Rehabilitation to shape policies and practices that promote self-determination and consumer choice.
SUFFICIENT PUBLIC TRANSIT – Ability360 has worked for many years with other disability and transit organizations to improve public transit, including buses, para-transit or Dial-A-Ride and Light Rail. We have kept advocates alerted to public meetings and hearings where they testified about the need for increased and improved public transit. We have provided workshops on how to testify at public hearings. The Advocacy Unit also developed a coalition to work on transit ballot initiatives, taught consumers how to write letters to the editor and encouraged them to do so, successfully. Ability360 has educated public officials on the impact of transit on residents with disabilities. We participated in get-out-the-vote activities for the Phoenix initiative to expand pubic transit to evenings and Sundays; that initiative sucessfully passed. We learned how the transit system works and how it is financed, discovering that there was a need for dedicated city and regional funding. We helped organize self-advocates to advocate city by city and regionally. We successfully helped pass Glendale, Phoenix and Tempe city taxes to support public transit and in 2004, a regional Maricopa County transportation plan that included public transit for the first time. An East Valley regional Dial-a-Ride system was created, and soon, through continued community advocacy we will have a countywide regional Dial-a-Ride system. Ability360 continues to distribute transit information to the disability community to notify them of transit advocacy opportunities through our advocacy listserv, Empower!.
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