by Arturo Espinoza
During the ‘90s, I had the opportunity to volunteer as an advocate for the Community Access Center in Riverside, Calif. That experience has been useful and invaluable; I learned a lot about certain legal issues when it came to dealing with Social Security, MediCal-Medicare and compliance standards. I also learned about the importance of encouraging other physically and visually challenged individuals to stand up for themselves when it came to dealing with various state and federal agencies where meeting their own needs and concerns were involved.
The clients I served often came in with horror stories about having been either ignored for long periods of time or treated with contempt or confusion by counselors and “professionals” within the medical and other employment services systems. Some of these situations were also concerned with unexplained losses of vital documents, malicious and age-related discriminatory statements like: “You’re over 50, so why should we waste our time funding training and equipment for you to get a job?”
Still other situations included landlords and employers refusing to make residential complexes and job sites safer and more accessible to their blind residents and wheelchair users. Sadly, when confronted with the reminder that there was such a thing as the ADA, responses tended to range from puzzled behavior, lack of knowledge or outright hostility! However, I also heard many positive stories about individuals in those type of agencies mentioned above who went the extra mile to be of assistance.
My goal for broaching this subject is to strongly encourage anyone out there with a visual, physical, or mental limitation to advocate for yourself, especially when there is a medical, mental health, housing, financial or some other personal need that you feel has not been addressed to your satisfaction. And if you’re uncertain about doing this by yourself, contact your local Chamber of Commerce or your state’s vocational rehabilitation services or commission for the blind for assistance. It’s also OK to take advantage of any health or legal clinics and any advocacy resources available in most cities and towns.
Where the process of engaging in effective and positive self-advocacy is concerned, I believe that learning to stand up for yourself includes the kind of attitude you project in being proactive. Although it may be uncomfortable, it is sometimes necessary to rock the boat. First, it is vital that you make the best effort that you can to not become a victim of your condition. Too many visually challenged people tend to be easily discouraged and intimidated by rejection. With this last observation in mind, one might ask: how, then, can I engage in a more specific manner so that I can have my needs met?
Such behaviors/actions include: making follow-up calls once you’ve established contact with the company or agency related to your need. This will sometimes mean making more than one follow-up call. Be persistent! Don’t feel guilty about doing what you have to, and don’t give up! Be as positive as you can and stay focused on what steps you are taking to reach your goal. If you are being interviewed for potential employment or request for some kind of assistance, dress well, because their first impression is everything. If you have computers, digital recorders or other note-taking devices, record or write things down so that you can have reliable documentation to keep you on track. And where necessary, e-mail your requests to those departments or agencies from which you are seeking assistance. By taking these vital steps, you are creating a legitimate and visible record of your need within those locales.
It’s also very useful to join social networks, clubs or groups that can help you stay motivated and supported in your needs-related efforts. Don’t isolate yourself! Ask yourself questions like: is my need justifiable? Is what I am asking for reasonable? Am I allowing fear, doubt or negative past experiences to act as stumbling blocks in reaching my goal, or am I letting pride stop me in asking for help? And how will getting my need met make my personal or work-related situation more bearable and/or efficient? Are my expectations realistic? Am I honestly making the effort it takes to find and use the resources that I need so that I can be as independent and self-reliant as possible in continuing to take care of myself in a meaningful and healthy way?
In the end, the encouragement that I hope readers will take from this piece is to keep in mind that the word “No” doesn’t have to mean defeat. In fact, the best way to get to that “yes” is to believe in yourself and in what you are striving for. Don’t hesitate to adopt the affirmative motto of “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Remember that people can’t read your mind and that no one knows you better than yourself. Have faith and confidence in your coping skills and inner strengths. If you’re comfortable doing so, rely on spiritual guidance. Remember that when push comes to shove, you made it this far against a variety of social, medical and economic odds. A closed mouth doesn’t get fed.