Organizing for Effective Advocacy – Part One

June 2010

Editor: We’ve been following John Waldo’s great advocacy work for a couple of year now, and we’re just amazed at how much he’s accomplished in a very short time. In this workshop, he’s telling us how to go about organizing so we can imitate some of his successes.

Working together as a group is much more effective than working as individuals. The Washington State Communication Access Project (Wash-CAP – see http://www.wash-cap.com) has been pretty effective in obtaining access for people with hearing loss, so I’m looking at that group as a model that we can hopefully replicate at various locations throughout the country.

We already have national organizations that advocate for people with hearing loss, and they have had some successes. What we’re lacking is local organizations, and that’s what this workshop is about.

I encourage people to start by trying to implement the laws that are already in place. There are some great efforts underway to create even better laws, but we still have a long ways to go to get the most out of laws that already exist.

This convention is a great example of how the whole world could be accessible. We have access to captions and assistive technology, so hearing loss doesn’t prevent us from participating fully in these activities. That world exists in the law books, but it doesn’t exist in the real world.

That means that someone isn’t doing their job, and the question is, “Who?” In the US, the Department of Justice is the sheriff, and they have a lot to do. With respect to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), for example, Congress deputized us consumers to lead the enforcement. The reasons for this strategy is because we know what we need, and also because it saves the government a lot of money. But the bottom line is that the people who aren’t doing their job are us!

As a model for building an accessible world, consider the task of building a barn. To accomplish this task, we need an objective, a site, a crew, tools, and a plan. We can approach the “retail implementation” of existing disability laws using a similar strategy.

The “site” of our project incorporates those situations covered by the ADA. This includes government facilities and programs (anything taxpayers do on a state or local level), as well as private business facilities that are open to the general public. Note that federal facilities and programs are generally covered by the Rehabilitation Act, rather than the ADA.

Note that differences exist between the requirements for government and private programs. For example, the ADA requires that state and local governments caption videos placed on the Internet, but does not impose that requirement on private businesses. Also note that there is no small business exemption for client access, like there is for employment requirements.

In considering how access is to be provided, the government must give ‘primary consideration” to the accommodation we request. In practice, this boils down to “reasonable accommodation” test. If our request is denied, it must be in writing and must come from the head of the agency making the denial.

The next consideration is the crew. Who is going to pursue this project? Individual efforts are often unsuccessful, because of the scope of the effort required. And if an individual is successful, the result is often a solution tailored to that individual, rather than one that accommodates everyone. Also, settlements often require the individual to keep settlement information confidential, which limits the effectiveness of the decision.

Organized advocacy groups, such as Friends of the Earth or the Environmental Defense Fund are generally more effective than individual efforts. The group may legally act on behalf of any member, a strategy that provides several advantages. One is that the group’s name is publicly available, rather than the individual’s name. A second is that the very nature of a group promotes long-term, rather than short-term, perspectives.

Our tools are the ADA and state disability laws, some of which are better than the ADA. In those situations, of course, arguments should be based on the state laws.

The ADA requires organizations to provide auxiliary aids and services, which includes captioning, interpreters, and assistive devices. Furthermore, these must be provided as a normal cost of doing business, which means that the consumer cannot be charged for them. Finally, the ADA permits us to go to court if an organization is not living up to its responsibilities.

The ADA requires that governments make all activities accessible; it requires private businesses to make locations accessible, but not products. Churches and their businesses are exempt, as are private clubs.

Other laws pick up where the ADA leaves off. The Rehabilitation Act applies to federal facilities and programs (other than courts); the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) applies to K-12 schools, and the Air Carrier Access Act applies to airplanes and portions of airports.

Here’s Part Two