By Sarah Meek, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy
Recently, Lutheran Services in America Disability Network (LSA-DN) had the privilege of hosting 30 self-advocates, family members, direct support staff and program staff from Bethesda Lutheran Communities, Filling Homes, KenCrest, Lutheran Family Services of Virginia, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and Mosaic for our second "Speak Up! Self-Advocate Training" in Washington, DC.
On Tuesday, October 6th the group banded together to learn and refine our advocacy techniques in preparation for a slew of visits on Capitol Hill. Mosaic’s own Dakota and Gina Johns, a self-advocate and his mother from Phoenix, Arizona, gave us the perspective of a seasoned self-advocate on conquering your nerves and techniques when in a Hill meeting. Even for me as a professional advocate, Dakota’s advice rings incredibly true: believe in yourself, practice your speech, and tell your story.
Later in the day, we heard a policy update from Aaron Bishop, the Commissioner of the Administration on Disabilities, and his colleagues. To round out the day, Valerie Williams, Joseph P. Kennedy Fellow with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee for Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), demystified the entire Hill visit process and walked us all through some advocacy role playing.
Equipped with these skills, we hit the halls of Congress on Wednesday, October 7th to meet with members of Congress and their staff from Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Minnesota, Arizona, Iowa and Connecticut. As someone who is on Capitol Hill every day, I am continually amazed by the courage and effectiveness of our self-advocates, their family members, and the people who directly support them. While I often get lost in the details of Medicaid waivers and reimbursements, Abigail Tessmann, a self-advocate from Bethesda, was able to eloquently and clearly describe how her the lack of accessible and reliable transportation prohibits her from working full time at the YMCA. And Kelly Murphy, a host home provider with Lutheran Family Services of Virginia, explained the increased quality of life that both she and the woman she supports have by living together as well as the incredible savings this results in for the Medicaid program.
As part of the summit, we wanted to acknowledge a lawmaker who has been very supportive of people with disabilities and was crucial in getting the historic ABLE act passed this past winter. Senator Robert Casey, Jr. (D-PA) was the lead sponsor of the ABLE Act in the Senate and has been a stalwart champion for the rights of people with disabilities. In a conference room near his Senate office, Bill Nolan, Executive Director of KenCrest and constituent, presented Sen. Casey with the award. Sen. Casey then spoke to the group about his commitment to our cause. Taking more time than he had, Sen. Casey met with each self-advocate to learn more about their lives and thank them for their advocacy. We are so lucky to have such a champion fighting for us in the Senate!
While this event was targeted to train self-advocates, I know it really brought me back to the fundamentals of advocacy and the importance of Lutheran social ministry in this work. And as I head to the Hill each day to advocate on behalf of the members of our network and the people we serve, I will remind myself of Dakota’s words: believe in yourself, practice your speech and tell LSA-DN’s story. As well as the story of Erin from Connecticut, and Sheri from Minnesota, and Karin and Chris from Virginia, and so many others. Let’s keep telling our stories, together.