By: Tom Constand, President And Ceo The Brain Injury Association Of Michigan
When Disability Abd Access Conflict Give Voice to The Voiceless
One of the most significant challenges facing the entire disability community is ensuring that one of America’s neediest and most vulnerable populations has the same access to lawmakers and policymakers as fully enabled counterparts. What makes the challenge so significant is that the terms disability and access are all too frequently incompatible.
When it comes to brain injury, the challenge is further underscored because individuals with severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), and occasionally even moderate TBI, might have difficulties with speech, cognition, motor control, memory, and a host of other issues that not only make self-advocacy difficult but diminish the motivation for engaging in activism and advocacy.
At the same time, the need for self-advocacy has never been greater. In Washington as well as state capitals nationwide, lobbyists and special interest groups, with the advantage of favorable judicial rulings on campaign finance, have an enormous advantage in terms of access to legislators and policymakers, also the discretionary funds that guarantee legislators’ time and interest. Ironically, too, in this era of populism—which purportedly means that the voice of the people, not the elites, drive policymaking—political philosophy in practice has meant anything but a responsive legislative ear to constituents’ needs and wants.
At the grassroots level, giving voice to the voiceless starts with the most egregious problems—voting access, for example. Chair-bound individuals might not be able to get to a polling station via public transportation or, once there, might not be able to reach and utilize an automated voting machine or complete a paper ballot without assistance. In many places, polling volunteers are not trained to help those with disabilities or don’t understand how to deal with typical issues—such as disabled voters who might lack a photo ID because they can’t drive. The bottom line is that voter participation among people with disabilities dropped to 55.9 percent in 2016, a significant decline compared to the non-disabled population.
A critically important basic issue, especially among the disabled, is lack of knowledge about the legislative process and how individuals and groups can and should contact and work with legislators. To that end, the Brain Injury Association of Michigan’s Vice President of Programs and Operations, Nichole Shotwell, has formed and is leading a coalition of disability groups to educate and inform our constituencies about becoming effective advocates. The Civic Engagement Training Day in Lansing, on March 22, 2018, was designed to address a soup-to-nuts agenda for advocacy beginners:
How to identify your legislator
- The best way to reach out to your legislators
- How to find legislation that matters to you
- Visits to members of health and disability-related committees
- Observing a legislative committee in action
- Touring the State Capitol
- Being officially recognized by the House of Representatives
The knowledge and insights resulting from Civic Engagement Day—much of which will actually be provided by Michigan Representatives and Senators—was designed to educate and motivate brain injury survivors and all of the coalition members in attendance, including representatives of Susan G. Komen, Arthritis Foundation, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, Michigan Disability Rights Coalition, Disability Network, Epilepsy Foundation, Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Michigan Family Voices.
There is a great deal of work that remains to be done to give voice to the voiceless—reaching out to legislators, physically arriving at voting stations, and casting a vote—but helping our survivors and others take the first steps to self-advocacy via advocacy training is a noteworthy achievement in making certain our government is fully representative.