Becoming a Self-Advocate

by DeAnna Quietwater Noriega

"I always wondered why somebody didn't do something about that; then I realized I was somebody." - Lily Tomlin
As a child, I was very shy. I grew up in a culture that taught children they should be seen and not heard. Add disability to the mix and you have a good formula for a person who quietly accedes to everyone else's wishes and is grateful for any kindness. What jerked me out of this habit of seeking approval and pushed me into speaking up and speaking out was that I had a strong belief in right and wrong. I could never stand to see a child or animal hurt. I hated bullies and anyone who used their power to harm the vulnerable.
While my timidity kept me from standing up for myself, it didn't keep me from fighting to protect others. Coming of age during the Vietnam era made me question whether authorities were always right. It seemed wrong to send young men off to fight wars when they couldn't even vote for the officials who made the decisions to fight them.
In my senior year of high school, I started out stuffing envelopes at the democratic headquarters. Although I was too young to vote for him, I wanted to help elect Bobby Kennedy. Defending my service dog when we were told we couldn't come in or use a public service taught me how to defend my rights under the law.
Becoming a self-advocate begins with recognizing that there is an issue or problem. If no one tackles it, then it might never get solved. You may not know what should be done about a particular situation, but if you don't start looking for answers, then you might not like the solutions that others choose.
Sometimes it may feel as if you are trying to shovel water when changes don't happen as quickly as you hoped. The thing I have learned, though, is that democracy isn't simple or easy. We are a diverse nation with the right to express our opinions. We can use our power at the ballot box to elect people we believe will represent our values. We can let them know when the laws they pass might adversely affect us. We can make a phone call, send an e-mail, write a letter or ask a question at a public forum. We have as much right as anyone to do these things because we live in a country founded on our right to do so. The flip side of this is that if we opt out of participating, then others who may hold opinions different from ours will carry the day. Living in a democracy means taking our responsibilities to be an active part of the process. Voting, reading about the issues and making our opinions known is what must happen if the system is to work as it should. We are the people too whose will is supposed to be the driving force of the democratic governing system under which we live.