Self-advocacy: A journey of courage

We all have courage and conviction and the ability to be great leaders.



The road of life is unpredictable. There are many ups and downs and sharp turns. At times we may even come to a fork in the road that forces us to make hard choices. But along that wild and crazy road, paths intersect and you meet new people. 

A wise woman told me that self-advocacy is a journey. You have individuals who are just starting to find their courage and voice and for them advocacy is, “I want eggs for breakfast.” That is a big deal because they have been told their whole life, “You’re getting oatmeal.”

But you have people further along on their journey, the veterans of the disability rights movement, who show up at the State House and refuse to leave until money is restored to the waitlist so individuals with disabilities can receive supports and services

We all have courage and conviction and the ability to be great leaders. But you can’t just turn it on with the flip of a switch. You have to foster those abilities over time and learn from the amazing advocates that have come before you.

The journey starts with speaking up for yourself, and evolves into speaking up for all people with disabilities.

As president of People First of New Hampshire, it can be challenging to lead a meeting because all our members are at different stages on their advocacy journey. I respect the fact that there are the shy, silent individuals who just come to listen and don’t feel bold enough to say anything. I give them their space, and from time to time they surprise me by saying something profound that truly adds to the conversation.

Linda, a survivor of the oppressive Laconia State School, proudly shares stories about life in her own home with her loving husband of over 20 years.

I see Mike, whose developmental disability once led him to bouts of anger, sharing how he calmly walked away after a cruel man muttered “retard” to him in passing, and I remember us praising him for keeping his cool, and laughing as he shrugged and said, “Yeah...but I should’ve decked him.” These individuals are among the many of who have shown me over the years that courage is self-advocacy.

Self- advocacy, a journey of courage, means speaking out against prejudice and proclaiming, “I want to be a contributing member of this community, but I need support.”

More than 22 percent of Americans have a disability, including 11 percent of New Hampshire residents. The simple truth is that we stand at the precipice of the continued civil rights movement. Advocates need to and will be heard.

John Fenley, president of People First of New Hampshire, is a member of the NH Council on Developmental Disabilities. He is also the creator and founder of Spark Community, a place where people with disabilities and non-disabilities come to learn.

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