Fifteen years ago I began a career supporting people with intellectual, and other, disabilities. As a brand new staff I took several training sessions about how to support people in a person centred (rather than staff centred, or system centred) way.
I learned that part of supporting people in a way that centred on their voice, their dreams, and their goals was advocating for them and with them in the community.
I accompanied people to the doctor and helped advocate for medication changes.
At the bank we advocated for better access to finances.
I filled out forms and sent letters to government officials (usually about money or taxes).
I fielded awkward conversations in public with people who weren’t sure whether the person I was supporting should really be there, out in the community, living their life alongside everyone else.
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The world is not built for people with disabilities and especially not for those with multiple disabilities. I got very familiar with needing to speak up and ask for something to be done differently so that it would work for the person I was serving.
But advocating for someone else is very different from advocating for yourself.
I remember the first time I realized this. It was about 12 years ago and I had just arrived at a restaurant and realized my blood sugar was low but that I had run out of jellybeans in my purse. I ordered an apple juice from the waitress, knowing that would fix my sugar.
Then I sat, waiting, and watched the waitress chatting away to a coworker at the bar. Chat, chat, chat.
I’m sure she was trying to time it so that she’d bring our drinks once we were ready to order but I needed the juice sooner than that.
As I sat there becoming increasingly low and increasingly frustrated, I realized that if I was there as a staff, supporting someone with diabetes who needed that juice, I wouldn’t hesitate to go and ask for it. So why wouldn’t I advocate for myself in the same way?
I did ask for the juice and I got it and it fixed my sugar and I felt like it was a big moment of realization for me.
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I am so grateful for my experience supporting people with disabilities for how it prepared me to now live as a disabled person. I have learned so much from the people I have supported over the years. Advocacy has not been the only area of growth for me but it has been invaluable.
It’s still a struggle though to advocate for myself so I push myself to use my current situation to advocate for others, because somehow that’s easier.
I know that things that work for me may still be an issue for others and so I try to use that awareness to speak up.
Whenever I have to lift my walker over an edge that means a wheelchair would be stuck.
When an automatic door is locked, I can push it open but that again means some people would be left outside.
When the elevator is broken I can trudge up the stairs but not everyone has that privilege.
So those are the times I speak up.
I may not want to advocate for myself but I’m glad to be an ally for others.
More on allies next time.