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LD Advocate: You just went and visited Senator Lott's office?
SB: All you have to do is pick up the phone, and call and say who you are, where you live and that you want to meet with him or with an aide. It is that easy. People don't realize that all you have to do is pick up the phone. You don't do it tomorrow, and plan to go the next day. But if you are going to be in Washington and you plan a little ahead, you call, and a scheduler will call you back. And if I know where I'm going to stay in Washington, I'll let them know where I'm going to be. You make yourself available.
When you get there, you know what you want to say, you say it as succinctly and quickly as you can. Then you thank them for their time, and you're out. Follow it up with a letter, but the most important thing is to keep following up, so that you are someone they rely on for information on learning disabilities. And then before you know it, once they feel comfortable with you, you'll get a phone call out of the clear blue saying, "Do you have an opinion on what's happening in the state regarding … ?"
LD Advocate: Is being in touch with the community a big part of being an advocate too?
SB: Very much so. If you can, tell them what's happening in the community-'This is how this legislation is going to impact my school, or fifth graders,' (if you happen to have one.) Use that as the rationale behind your message. They need to know that there are real kids out there that legislation impacts. They don't always think about the kids, the parents and the teachers who have to live with what's been passed.
LD Advocate: Have you had any big wins in your advocacy work?
SB: Yes, IDEA '97 (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reauthorization in 1997). Because of the relationship I had with Senator Lott's office, when he was majority leader, I had worked with the aides and had become very closely acquainted with his chief of staff, David Hoppe, who happens to have a child with a disability. I had been in to Senator Lott's office over the past six or eight years, sharing information, and so I was included in the list of stakeholders who came to Washington every two to three weeks to discuss various changes to be made to IDEA during the reauthorization.
I was in Washington on the day that the bill was voice voted in the Senate. I watched the roll-call vote, as they voted for the piece of legislation that we worked so hard for. The only thing I could do was cry - just to be one of hundreds sitting in that room. We all constituted a whole and made a good piece of legislation. Then I was invited to the White House. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought, when I first started doing this, that I would watch a piece of legislation happen, be asked to be a part of it, and then be allowed the privilege to sit at the White House and watch it be signed into law. It never crossed my mind that I would be so blessed.
LD Advocate : So what's your favorite thing about advocacy?
SB: My favorite is being able to celebrate when there has been a good piece of legislation. I mean it has really been a learning process for me, and I continue to learn. There's not a week passes that you don't learn something you didn't know, either about a piece of legislation, an organization or different members of Congress who you need to work with. It's just simply growing and expanding all the time.
LD Advocate: And being part of a community?
SB: Yes, very much so. And hopefully what you're doing is making life better for the kids, and you are leaving education better than when it was when you found it. And you know there have been wonderful mentors all along-people who have been willing to show me how it all happens, willing to share with me. It's not a secret society; it's more a sisterhood. It's not an exclusive club; it's more kinship, I think, of people who have been there. They understand.
They like a good fight, and they are ready to go with it, or they are another parent who has learned and who is willing to mentor somebody else.
If I could give one piece of advice for a parent, it would be find a mentor. And begin to take your steps as small or as large as you're comfortable with taking.
Reprinted with permission from the National Center for Learning Disabilities. All rights reserved.
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