The American Heritage Dictionary defines advocacy as “the act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy; active support.” That’s true, but it can be even simpler. Advocacy allows people and groups to share their opinion with policymakers. These policy makers are usually your elected officials and they vote on many important issues that affect you and people like you. But policymakers can’t represent you and your views effectively if you don’t communicate with them. Advocacy is a powerful tool to help promote the goals and interests of the profession and the Deaf community.
You should advocate anytime there is a policy proposed that will affect you. But you don’t have to wait for someone to propose a change to get involved. Be proactive! Did you know that several states, including Maryland, California, Florida, and New York, currently have no state licensure requirements for community interpreters? If you have an idea for a new law or policy, contact your elected officials. They have the ability to propose legislation that their constituents request. So if you have an idea, share it – that idea might become a law.
Advocacy can happen at all levels of government and in many different ways. Whether you decide to focus on local, state, or federal issues will depend on you and your interests. Some issues are more appropriately addressed at the state and local level. Still others are better addressed through federal legislation and/or regulation. For example, policies related to Vide Relay Service (VRS) are promulgated through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a federal agency. Conversely, many states have enacted legislation regulating interpreters practicing within their borders.
Many advocates start because they witness or experience what they perceive as an injustice. Perhaps you are a certified interpreter losing opportunities to uncertified interpreters because your state doesn’t have a licensure requirement. Or perhaps you are having a hard time convincing organizations and businesses that you are a professional who should be compensated for your time and work. Each advocate has a different reason for becoming more involved, however, most get involved because they encountered a situation that made them say, “Something has to be done!” This situation defines your core issue or cause and will become the basis of your advocacy efforts.
Everyone approaches advocacy differently, but some principles hold true no matter your approach. First and foremost, be honest. Your credibility as an advocate depends on whether policymakers can trust what you say. Don’t exaggerate facts or statistics and don’t make up information when you don’t know the answer to a question. Be respectful of the policymaker and his or her time. Stay informed so that you can provide as much information to support your opinion as possible. And finally, be persistent. Changing policy takes time and it’s important that you remind policymakers about your issue. Something as simple as a short email can serve as an important tool to keep your issue fresh in a policymaker’s mind.
You should advocate for any issue that is important to you. Policymakers expect to hear from advocates more than once, so don’t be afraid to contact your legislators about more than one issue. If you are short on time, choose the issue that is most important to you and work on that one first. If you have more time later, you can come back to other issue(s).
At each level of government, there is a process for enacting legislation and policy. Local government enacts ordinances that govern counties, cities, and townships. The state legislature enacts statutes that impact the entire state. Congress enacts laws that apply to each state across the nation. In many cases, advocates find that they are most successful on the local and state levels.
Local governments affect our lives in many ways. Local government officials are charged with the administration of a particular town, county or district, with representatives elected by those who live there. From providing police and fire services to operating parks and libraries, local government touches many facets of our daily lives. Local governments can also regulate businesses located within their jurisdiction, including establishing ordinances that impact people with hearing loss.
The state legislature is responsible for making and amending state laws. The “upper” body is often called the state senate or assembly and those elected to serve in it are called senators. The “lower” body is called the state house and its members are generally called representatives. (In Nebraska, all state legislators are called senators.) Residents of each district, a specific geographic area, usually elect one or more member(s) to the legislature who are expected to represent their district constituents. State government also has the potential to affect state’s budget, as well as issues around employment, education and more.
In most cases, your state elected officials are very accessible and want to hear from you. If you have a concern, you can send your legislator(s) an email, call them on the phone, or visit them in their office. Often you will meet or speak directly with the legislator, not with his or her staff.
Congress makes laws that impact the entire United States. The laws passed by Congress are far-reaching, impacting each state in the nation. Congress is able to regulate commerce between states and other important issues that affect every citizen of the United States.
Congress is made up of two “houses.” The U.S. Senate has 100 elected members – two from each state. Each state also sends elected representatives to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, which has 435 members. A state’s total population determines the number of representatives for that state. States with more residents have the most representatives.
Because the members of Congress serve more constituents than state and local legislators, it can be very difficult to meet or speak directly with one. Instead, you will often speak with a staff person who is charged with communicating your concerns to the member.
As you can see, policy changes for people with hearing loss can happen at all levels of government. You may be wondering where your efforts are most needed or best spent to achieve your policy goals. Whether you advocate for local, state, or federal policy changes largely depends on your issue. If you want your local school system to ban the use of uncaptioned video materials in the classroom, you may want to focus your efforts on local government. You could also bring the issue to the state government so that the mandate applies to every school in the state, not just a single county/city/townships. However, if you want internet businesses to provide captioning for their online audio and video content, you should talk to your Congressmen and/or women because the issue affects interstate commerce.
At each level of government, regardless of where you live, the process for enacting legislation is relatively the same. Someone has an idea for a new law or decides that changes should be made to an existing law. The bill is drafted and introduced to the legislature. Then, the issue is debated and may eventually come to a vote. Finally, if a bill is passed, it either becomes law or is vetoed.
To find and track federal legislation, go to: https://www.govtrack.us/. There, you can look up a bill if you already know the number or you can search for bills by keyword. For example, if you type in “hearing aid” and click “Search,” you will find any legislation related to hearing aids. Once you find the proposed bills you would like to follow, you should keep a document or spreadsheet where you keep track and then visit the site often for updates.
To find your state legislature’s website, visit: https://www.llsdc.org/state-legislation. Each state varies a bit in how it organizes its legislative information. Most websites, however, have a search function so that you can find bills of interest to you. Another resource on statewide legislation may be your state office or commission of the deaf and hard of hearing.
If you do not have internet access, you can contact your state legislature’s office or go to a local library for help.
Tracking local legislation is similar to tracking state legislation. Locate the website for your local government and then look for “legislation,” “county council,” or something similar. Most local governments post the ordinances they’ve voted on in the past, as well as an agenda for upcoming votes.
Again, if you do not have internet access, you can contact your local government’s office or go to a local library for help.
Sending a letter or an email is a great way to communicate your thoughts and feelings to policymakers because it allows you to think about your message, write it down, and then edit it until you feel comfortable with what you are sending. It is also a good alternative to calling on the phone if you are concerned you may get “stage fright” or trouble understanding what is being said.
Here are some general guidelines for writing letters and emails to your representative:
Your letter or email should address a single topic, issue, or bill.
If you are mailing your letter, typed, one-page letters are best.
The best letters and emails are courteous, to the point, and include specific supporting examples.
Always say why you are writing and who you are. (If you want a response, you must include your name and address, even when using email.)
Be factual not emotional.
Provide specific rather than general information about how the topic affects you and others.
If a certain bill is involved, cite the correct title or number whenever possible.
Close by requesting the action you want taken: a vote for or against a bill, or change in general policy.
As a general rule, emails are usually shorter and more to the point.
ALWAYS THANK THEM FOR TAKING THE TIME TO READ THE LETTER/EMAIL.
Personalized letters and emails can have a big impact on policymakers. As a result, advocacy organizations often draft what are called “form letters,” which allow you to simply fill in your contact information and send it to all of your representatives. These letters make it easier for individuals to contact their legislators, thereby increasing the volume of letters received on a particular topic. However, you may want to think twice before sending a form letter. Many legislators worry that form messages don’t reflect the sender’s position. They also may be concerned that the message may have been sent without the constituent’s knowledge.
Whenever possible, write your own email or letter, even if you borrow points from a form letter. The message can be simple and to the point.
Building Relationships with your State and Local Elected Officials
Developing ongoing relationships with your state and local elected officials is an essential part of being an effective advocate because in policymaking, it’s not who you know, but who knows you.
Every time you see a legislator, introduce yourself and tell him or her you live in his or her district. Do this until they recognize you and greet you by name.
Find out more about your legislator’s background so that you can find a common ground and build a relationship on shared interests.
Learn about your legislator’s history as a politician. Does he or she serve on a committee that will hear a bill you are supporting? Has he or she voted favorable on your issues in the past? Knowing these things will help shape your conversations about policy changes.
Follow the tips above to communicate with your legislators in person and in writing.
When your state legislature is recessed, schedule a meeting to discuss issues important to you. During a recess, legislators are usually less busy and more available to meet than when the legislature is in session.
Attend local political events and talk with local politicians and leaders in the different political parties. Get to know who people are.
If possible, volunteer for a campaign. Candidates need the help and you can use the time to talk a bit about communication access issues.
Communicate often, even if it’s just a short email checking in on an issue you’ve discussed.
Whether you call it community organizing, grassroots advocacy, or something else, organizing is an important tool to create systemic change. While every individual can make an impact by contacting his or her legislators, the principle of “strength in numbers” holds true in policy advocacy. The more people who support a cause or piece of legislation, the more likely it is that legislators will take action.
When you can find other groups with the same or similar goals as yours, it is important to work together to solve a shared problem. For example, are there other affiliate chapters in your state that you can contact? What about the state association of the Deaf or other Deaf service organizations? While each organization has its own philosophy and priorities, there are likely issues you can agree on and work together to promote. For example, each organization would likely support a law that would raise interpreter standards in the state.
RID’s purpose is to serve equally our members, profession, and the public by promoting and advocating for qualified and effective interpreters in all spaces where intersectional diverse Deaf lives are impacted.
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc.
333 Commerce Street,