By Lois M. Zerrer

It’s an election year, and budget discussions at all levels of government are threatening decades of progress on behalf of individuals with disabilities. The stakes are high, and campaigning officials will be especially open to conversations with their constituents. If you’ve never before advocated with elected representatives, this is a good time to begin. Here are some tips for capturing the attention of decisionmakers…

  • Be specific and personal. Instead of an open-ended request – “We need more money for special needs services” – focus on a specific bill or program. Know the number of the bill, who supports and opposes it and where it stands in the legislative process. Be prepared with your talking points and back them up with details of how this will affect your family. Legislators and their staffs communicate with thousands of individuals. Your personal story will stand out and provide powerful support for your position.
  • Staff members matter. Don’t be offended if you end up meeting with a member of the legislator’s staff. Chances are that person understands your issue better than the boss and that the staffer will be the one preparing the position paper that will determine how your elected official will vote.
  • Be impassioned but polite. Commitment is memorable, but strident behavior is unlikely to persuade. Be respectful as you tell your story. Follow up a visit or phone call with a note, thanking the legislator for his/her time and offering to be a resource for additional questions. If your legislator votes as you asked, express your gratitude, perhaps with an invitation to visit and be recognized by one of the organizations in which you’re active. Take advantage of this opportunity to build a long-term relationship.
  • Quantify. Explain that your family’s situation is far from unique. Estimate how many others will be affected by a specific piece of legislation. Whenever possible, tie those numbers to the legislator’s constituency, potential voters who’ll be watching his/her course of action.
  • If applicable, make the point that many social services actually save money. Community-based housing costs less than institutionalization. Preventive healthcare is less expensive than emergency room treatment.
  • Snail mail works. Although mass email campaigns have their place, especially as a voting deadline looms, a more personal letter – especially if hand-written – stands out. Legislators receive hundreds of emails daily. Today, a stamp and envelope make a statement about your commitment.
  • Join forces. Organize a group of parents to visit a legislator together or work with a local advocacy organization. It’s important to illustrate the extent to which your position is supported by others in your community.
  • Help an election campaign. If you’ve identified a legislator who truly understands and supports the special needs community, consider becoming a campaign volunteer or making a financial contribution. Campaign activism is a great way to cement relationships that can have long-lasting benefits.