What brought you to the issue of learning disabilities?
Sandra Britt: I have three sons who have learning disabilities, so it was very personal. When I started this journey, 38 years ago, there was not nearly as much parental involvement in the process as there is now. It was a long struggle, and there was not a lot of material out there — no Web sites. You just hoped you found something in the library. So I began to learn, I began to read everything I could put my hands on, and I learned to self-advocate the hard way.
How did you take the next step to advocating for change in the system?
Sandra Britt: The more I read, the more I was interested. And I thought, "Well, who am I that I can go do this?" But when you begin working at the state level, you soon discover that you cant 'I became involved by having my name submitted on the state special ed council.
The parent voice is a very strong voice. And we often don't think that, as a parent, we have anything to offer. "Who am I as a parent? I'm just a parent." That's typically the stance that most parents take. I have discovered, as I have done advocacy at the state and federal level, that a parent's voice is real, honest, and heartfelt.
What would you say is the first step in becoming an LD advocate?
Sandra Britt: Start small. Be comfortable with where you are going. Don't think you have to carry the whole ball of wax at one time. Know what you are advocating for. Read. Make yourself familiar. Oftentimes, when you interact with staff people on the state or national level, they are going to ask you questions. Be comfortable enough to agree or disagree, or to respond and formulate an opinion. It's perfectly okay not to know everything they ask, but it is so important before you take that very first step of faith out there to be comfortable with the issues that you are going to advocate for or against.
You know, if someone from a small town in Mississippi can do this, then anybody can. Nobody can determine the size of the step that you take but you. When you are comfortable with your advocacy at the first level, then move to the next level. An easy way to begin is either a telephone call or to write a letter. Tell your story, which is an easy way to begin. Most parents find they can do that. If there is a group of parents who can get together in the district, that's great too. It only takes 15-20 letters — genuine, honest-to-goodness letters — and somebody is going to flag them and take a look.
Who should people address when they want to begin advocating?
Sandra Britt: Their elected officials, both at the state and federal level, ideally when they are in their home district. Pick up the phone, and speak to a staff person to say, "I'm concerned"or "I'm pleased with XYZ." In the course of conversation, you may know someone who is a friend of someone. It's often those connections that are the best tools you have to work with — an acquaintance somewhere, who happens to have a position of authority or who happens to be a friend of a senator or a representative, regardless of which level you are dealing with. Or you know somebody that they know. Often, it gives you more credibility.
When I first began to go to Washington to do some lobbying at the federal level for LDA, I began to make a relationship with someone in Senator Trent Lott's office. We had mutual friends back home in Mississippi, so every time I called, or occasionally visited, I was always careful to ask for this particular person by name. If I found an article that was particularly good about a topic we were interested in, or that supported a position we happened to be advocating for at the time, I would always share that.