Working With Policymakers
All politics are local—every piece of legislation that exists has local implications and is also based on local needs. It seems obvious, but it's important to remember. It means that laws exist because people like you worked to make them happen. Most of our current laws that assist and protect people with learning disabilities came from the grassroots efforts of advocates like you. Both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) came to be because advocates (not Senators or highly paid lobbyists) took action and educated policymakers as to why these laws needed to exist.
You, too, can make laws happen. How? By understanding how government works and how you can most effectively get involved. There are lots of different ways to get to policymakers and communicate your thoughts on an issue, but before you pick up your pen or your phone, you need to keep several things in mind in order to be most effective.
Before You Approach Policymakers
Familiarize yourself with what your elected officials have to say—both in the policies they support and in the media.
Keep track of where your local officials stand on learning disabilities, education and special education issues. It is important to start with the legislators who represent you directly (your senator, your house representative) because they are the ones over whom you will have the most influence. You are one of their constituents. You can contact their offices to ask for a position statement or to see if they have sponsored legislation important to people with LD.
If your senator or house representative doesn’t sit on the appropriate committee, learn about the legislators who do. When you are ready to get in touch with policymakers, it will be useful to address both your own representatives as well as those who are in the more influential positions on LD issues.
Become familiar with all the existing laws, as well as bills that are pending, that affect individuals with disabilities.
Know their names and numbers—it is important to be able to refer to these policies when you are communicating with your representatives. Our legislators can’t be experts on every issue, so it's up to you to help them understand intricate issues such as learning disabilities and special education. This isn't as daunting as it sounds. NCLD and other organizations keep track of these laws, and even send out email alerts to notify advocates about legislative news. Get the basics on existing laws that impact people with LD.
Clarify your focus.
What exactly are you trying to accomplish? Being as specific as possible about the issue you are presenting to a policymaker is the key to being effective. “Getting children with learning disabilities a decent education” is too broad. “Working to get IDEA reauthorized and to change the language in the law to make it possible for children with learning disabilities to be identified earlier than they currently are” is a specific goal that you can bring to legislators.
Stay open-minded and respectful.
You will encounter policymakers who don't agree with what you are trying to accomplish; they may have agendas that completely oppose yours. Don't dismiss them. Understanding opposing points of view will help you craft a strong position that takes diverse interests into account. Also, don't be hostile towards them. Remaining respectful, calm and personable, even with those whose views might offend you, is the key to being an effective advocate.
Be prepared to “double deck.”
If you want to be sure that you are reaching policymakers and having an impact on their policy decisions, you are going to have to use many of the available methods to communicate your message. Just sending an email isn't enough. These days, in order to be heard, you will most likely have to pick up the phone, send a fax, send an email, and even stop by the office if you can. Make it impossible for the people you are trying to reach to ignore you.
Whom to Approach
Constituents have the greatest chance of being heard by their legislative representatives. On the federal level, Congress consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Every state has two senators and at least one representative (approximately one representative for every 650,000 people). Each congressperson also has a large staff dedicated to finding out where voters stand on important issues. On the state level, there is also a Senate and a House of Representatives. Locally, county and city councils represent their citizens, and in some states there are also regional legislatures.
Everyone in the Unites States is represented by two U.S. senators, one U.S. representative; one state senator, one or more state representatives; as well as county and city council members. You elect these people, so they are all very interested in what you have to say.