Posted on June 26, 2020

By Kathy Rogers, Chief Advancement Officer, Penn-Mar Human Services | Executive Director, Penn-Mar Foundation

Kathy RogersSometimes people feel that advocating for a cause is futile, but it’s important to know that your voice matters more than you might think.

By definition, advocacy is public support for or recommendations of a particular cause or policy. It requires equal parts head and heart: information and passion. One without the other usually doesn’t win the day.

It seems like just yesterday was Developmental Disabilities Day 2020 (DD Day) in Annapolis. But it was actually February 12th when hundreds of self-advocates, families, policy makers and colleagues descended on the state capital to make their voices heard.

A group of over 30 advocates from Penn-Mar made the trek down to Annapolis to further educate the legislature on how an increase in budget could improve the lives of people with disabilities and the lives of their dedicated support staff, called Direct Support Professionals (DSPs).

At the time, we were fighting for Governor Larry Hogan to include a 4% disability services increase in the budget. This is needed so that DSP wages will stay on track with the newly mandated Maryland minimum wage. DSP jobs are not minimum wage jobs, and yet without that 4% they will fall behind minimum wage.

No question it’s a hassle to get up at the crack of dawn in February and head to Annapolis with no guarantees of success. But what if everyone felt that way and no one showed up?

Advocacy is the long game. You may not change something in a single session. But you can increase your likelihood of success by building relationships over time.

Penn-Mar’s approach is to always keep our mission in mind: why funding or certain regulations matter (or not) and how can budgets negatively or positively impact our services, and consequently, the people with disabilities and their loved ones who rely on them.

When we meet with legislators on both sides of the aisle, we approach them with education vs. confrontation. Legislators don’t always know the issue like we do, or have the time to properly research them. Sometimes legislators are recently elected and are just beginning to navigate their roles. It’s our job to continually equip them with what they need to make informed decisions.

With this approach, Penn-Mar has become a valuable resource to both the Pennsylvania and Maryland legislatures to the point where now we are being asked for our feedback and input on proposed legislation.

That’s what the “long game” is all about and why building relationships and trust are so critical to success.

Yet the most important element of our efforts involves supporting self-advocates to lead the discussion. They tell their stories in their own words, bringing policy and spreadsheets to life in a powerful way.

Balancing the facts with personal, passionate testimony makes it easier for legislators to evaluate the whole picture and know that the decision they make will directly impact the quality of life for the people standing before them.

It is these relationships and personal experiences that will help us capture minds and hearts. And it is also our intellectual and developmental disability community’s tenacity that will help chart an ever-forward path.

Often, advocating at a legislative level feels like one step forward, two steps back. That 4% we fought so hard for back in February is now in danger again, and we are calling upon our advocates to contact the Board of Public Works (Governor Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and Treasurer Nancy Kopp) and remind them to keep this 4% increase for DD Service Providers, as it is critical to the health and well-being of those with disabilities.

We know that our advocates are tired and frustrated; that many of you contact your representatives on a monthly or even weekly basis, sharing your stories and your concerns. We are grateful beyond words for your dedication, and we recognize your fatigue.

So we implore you, our most stalwart supporters, to remember that this is the long game. Make the calls, send the emails, take a break when you need to, pace yourself – just don’t give up.

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