Tuesday, March 18, 2008

ZZzzz... Disability Advocates Need New Tools

The attempts of the disability movement to promote a respectful, inclusive, welcoming-toward-disability culture bore our audiences to sleep.

We have developed a group of advocacy tools: we have learned our rights and many ways to protest, we have learned some ways to lobby (I mean ‘educate’), we have learned a bit about congregating and using stories for persuasion, we have learned something about fundraising. These are good and useful strategies, but in truth our toolbox has very few tools and we face a huge variety of problems. As a consequence we frequently apply the wrong tool to the job at hand with poor results.

For example, to host a successful major fundraising campaign and raise a ton of money, first, we show and tell our story of need (‘make them cry.’) Secondly, we present our answer (the way things SHOULD be.) Thirdly, we present an easy action that will make a difference now (give $$, now.)

Donors respond to this in droves. They feel our pain, they see the possibility and they do something. They help you, they feel good and they can quickly disengage from your problems and get back to their lives. It’s a win-win-win situation.

This is a great fundraising campaign or project tool.

We are successful with this tool so we apply it to everything. So if we want to increase employment for people with disabilities we present the need—poverty. Secondly, we present our answer—a job. Thirdly, we say hire us it would be good for us.

And we bomb. Employment doesn’t increase at all. And we don’t know why…

Help Me + Should + Easy Action + Disengage = $$ is the wrong formula for reaching goals of inclusion, respect, and welcome for people with disabilities because it is by design a short-term solution. The ability to disengage after a short action is necessary to get folks with money to contribute to big campaigns that fall outside their usual areas of interest.

Can an employer hire someone today and then disengage? Not really. Employment is not a short-term project and it can’t be effectively addressed with a short-term tool.

Hammers are the wrong tool for glass. Band-aids cannot replace appendectomies.

To create sustained behavior, attitude and culture changes we need to use a different advocacy tool. Perhaps something new—or at least new to us.

I think a skill that has untapped potential as an advocacy tool is advertising.

Consider the manufacturer of your favorite soft-drink (or car, or snack food, or whatever). That company doesn’t want your support for today, for a project or even every October.

Advertisers want you to choose their product day-in, day-out and never disengage. They want you to see their product as a part of you. They want sustained change. They want loyalty. They want you to identify yourself as their kind of people.

This sounds like what we want.

And they are very effective—so effective that advertising is a major hunk of every successful company’s budget.

And it works!

So what can we learn from advertisers that we can incorporate into advocacy?

To start with, let’s look at their messages.

Does the commercial for your favorite soft-drink ever tell you to buy their beverage because they really need the money and their employees really need the work?

If they did would you buy it? You might a few times, to pitch in (you are nice people!) How long would that last? As my teenagers say when I am blathering on and they want to aggravate me to death, “Blah, blah, blah… your needs!”

Ads that work appeal to the needs of the viewers—NOT the presenters.

YOU will be refreshed, YOU will have really cool friends, YOU will have more fun… if you drink our beverage YOUR life will be better.

This single perspective could turn advocacy on its head.

Today we tell our school boards and fellow parents that we want a new computer to help our child meet his potential. And we are seen as the enemy of both the district and the taxpayer.

What if we presented that the $1000 laptop would free up the $26,000/year helper that the district now hires to help more kids? What if we presented that there would be more teacher time for the other kids? Or less money spent on special classes? Or if we came from the premise that communities hire school districts because uneducated adults (with or without disabilities) are expensive?

How would this approach change the dynamics of our advocacy? Who might become our allies?

I have been trying on and off for years to interest various groups of people in teaming up to do an ADA ad. I think working in partnerships would be valuable, we would learn a lot and I think my concept for an ad would be great (I’m a nurse, why wouldn’t my advertising idea be great?? )

I want to begin by showing a bunch of guys in a noisy sports bar who turn to the camera and yell, “We love closed captioning!” And then a person who is deaf would sign, “Me too!”

Then I would show a mom pushing a stroller full of kids into an elevator and she would say that elevators are great and someone with a wheelchair would agree.

Then I would show a shopper with tons of packages and someone with mobility issues opening the electric doors for each other…

OK, this might not be the best idea EVER (it is slightly possible that advertising isn’t my gift. I guess.) But when people object to the idea what they say is that it should show how it helps the person with the disability first and later point out that it is also good for others.

I am reading the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath on the recommendation of Katya Andresen’s blog. They would call presenting something as good for disability first and that it’s good for everyone else later “burying your lead.” This means not placing your “stickiest” message in the priority position.

What are your thoughts? I know advertising is not a traditional advocacy skill, but it clearly works for Coke and Pepsi…could it be tweaked (individualized!) to work for us as well?


Anonymous said...

Terri, you make some great points. Getting employers to hire people with disabilities - especially ones with DD, is a special challenge.

For one, they generally have little to no experience working with this population, and even worse, are filled with misguided preconceptions about how a person with a DD can and should act.

I like your idea about an ADA advertisement. We absolutely need some way to erase the stereotypes of people with disabilities. I do however have another suggestion that you may find interesting... and no this is not a sales pitch, although it is somewhat self-serving.

Imagine if you were able to build a series of interactive, online-training programs geared towards helping employers to understand the DD population better and their value to the workforce. In fact, imagine that each course was sponsored by a company that currently supports people with disabilities in the workplace and therefore was given adspace/recognition within the program. In fact, you could also build online programs specifically for people with disabilities that taught them how to be an effective employee.

You could connect selected companies in any industry with the local school systems to help build on these newly acquired skills - thereby providing students with a solid resume before they even graduate high school.

If you'd be interested in hearing and seeing more about what I'm proposing, my email is tmcmahon@smsap.com

Take Care Terri!


Terri said...

I agree that up-to-date, innovative approaches to disability issues are also an important tool to have in our advocacy toolboxes.

On-line approaches to support employers and proactively train employees is an interesting approach.

Thank you for putting your expertise to work for people with disabilities.