My weekly blogs are typically inspired from events that happen in my life. This one is no different. For those who follow my blog or know me personally are already aware that I’m an advocate for those with disabilities. When I look back, I don’t think there was a point in my life that I was never not an advocate. Being the sibling to a brother with a disability, I was never asked or given the title of an advocate, it just happened. Ever since I could remember, I was always telling others — friends, teachers, and softball teammates — about my brother and educating them that his differences don’t make him less of a person Advocating became just another part of my life.
Over the years as I became a Special Education Teacher and then a community provider for those with disabilities, I started to look at advocacy differently. I have seen my fair share of advocates for those with disabilities from the passionate parent, to the leader of a family support group, to the teacher desperately striving for inclusion.
We, the advocates, of those with disabilities tend to take platforms to teach disability-friendly preferred language, education opportunities of inclusion, and understanding the value that someone with a disability brings to the table. I love the quote by Robert Hansel, “Know me for my ability and not my disability.” We tend to allow this statement to ground each of us, as it should.
However, over recent years, I have seen competition between advocates, as though one is advocating better than the other.
I have seen parents become so passionate the feeling of hatred and betrayal rattles them to the core. And other parents who have settled into isolation, because the fight has left them exhausted.
I have observed passionate teachers give up on their dream career, because they were silenced in their quest of wanting more for their students.
Being an advocate doesn’t have to mean you’re right and everyone else is wrong. Being an advocate doesn’t mean you must put on boxing gloves to fight for what is right. Being an advocate starts with passion, but should lead to being a teacher.
Are you passionate about making a difference in your community? In order to make change happen, you must master the art of being an advocate of change.
The definition of advocate is a person who publicity supports or recommends a particular cause or policy. If a cause or policy needs advocacy, then most likely it is viewed as not the norm and is controversial among society.
So what does this mean for an advocate? We must fight for what we believe in? I think this is what most people tend to think and they fail to make progress. If you dig into history the most powerful leaders of change and movements were people whose passion bled out of them. They weren’t demanding to be heard, but they spoke in a way that everyone listened. They made people excited in the future. They led people to believe in the possibilities of a better tomorrow, with their consistent leadership approach. Most change doesn’t happen over night, but over time. Stay the course.
Here are my four principles of becoming a powerful advocate of change.
Principle #1: Be open to listening instead of demanding your voice gets heard. When we listen to others we can learn about them and their desires, even if different than our own. We must find a way to connect and build with them instead of against them. Most advocates, including myself, have seen and heard more negative over the years than positive. We have become skeptics that no one understands or wants to listen to, so we tend to raise our voices louder and start off on the defense. I’m encouraging you to take a pause, let go of previous negativity, and embrace others around you. Start listening, reflect, and connect with others in order to make progress towards your purpose.
Principle #2: You can’t be passionate about one thing and not the other. If you are taking a stand for the acceptance of disabilities you must look at all those whose history prevents them from being respected or accepted. In my previous blog (We Rise By Lifting Others), I talked more in depth about this principle, but it’s so important in everyone’s advocacy. We are stronger together.
Principle #3: Don’t be an advocate on a higher platform than everyone else. Allow your passion to become who you are, but don’t scream it at people. Be among the people. Be within the people. Build relationships with people. Your advocacy will only be as strong as the leaders with you. Don’t stand alone. During your journey stay connected and focused on the people who believe in your message and passion, instead of focusing on those who are not there yet.
Principle #4: Be approachable. People follow change through watching others and being inspired by other’s hearts. When they can “feel” your passion, a person is more willing to follow you. If they feel as though you are screaming and demanding, they tend to dread your message because of the delivery style. Help to break down barriers, by allowing people to gain knowledge through your message and answering their questions. Don’t be defensive through your teaching, be patient.
Most people who tend to judge or not welcome new ways of thinking are this way because they need to be educated. They need to trust someone before they can hear the message and ask questions. I have found that it’s not that a person doesn’t want to accept and love others who are different than them, but they just don’t know how and that makes them fear saying or doing the wrong thing. The fear of doing wrong is there because they know some advocates will become offended and then attack their wrong doing, when in fact it may have been unintentional due to lack of education.
The average person does not change due to their fear of the unknown. As advocates of a cause or purpose, we must be willing to become a teacher of the “how.”
Think back to your favorite teacher growing up in school. What made that teacher special to you? He/she probably taught you the most. They allowed you to fail and helped you through it. That teacher nurtured you through the learning process and provided patience. They didn’t expect you to know all the answers and the right approach to mastering your knowledge. That teacher guided you, offered a safe place for you to ask questions and gave you the confidence to perform at a higher level.
This is what I imagine an advocate to be….an understanding and patient teacher.
If you are an advocate and feel your message isn’t being heard or you are not making progress, I challenge you to reflect within. Be strong enough that when people fight back against your cause, that you in return you don’t retaliate. Allow them to feel your passion through your actions. My mom always said, “It takes two to fight.” Don’t see the negative in others, but just the lack of education and awareness they so desperately need. You need to be the teacher.