Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Unexpectedly Effective Advocacy #1: Laughter

Today I begin a new blog-series on advocacy skills. Since learning about my daughter’s diagnosis of Down syndrome and my son’s diagnosis of Non-Verbal Learning Disorder in the early 1990’s I have embraced advocacy skills—the skills of ‘speaking up.’ I have learned about successful advocacy through workshops, books and mentors and I have used these skills to change my kids’ personal situations, to improve systems and to promote public policies to support the recognition of the full citizenship of people with disabilities. Along the way I have picked up a few tricks that aren’t usually mentioned as advocacy skills, yet they work for me. Perhaps you will find them useful as well.

The first surprisingly effective advocacy skill is laughter.

There is a common recognition for the value of “making ‘em cry.” It is a technique common in congressional hearings, telethons, and sometimes in IEP meetings. While it is often effective, there are some weaknesses in the tactic that need to be considered—it is great for some situations, but not for all.

For one thing, in a congressional hearing a mom can tell an emotional story because someone else will make “the ask.” In my child’s meeting at school there is usually no one else in the meeting to pick up and do the next steps. If I do let myself get really weepy I have a tough time pulling myself back together to complete my mission.

For another thing, there is a very fine line between generating empathy (having others ‘feel with’ you) and generating pity (having others feel sorry for you.) Empathy connects people, pity separates people creating pitiers and an object of pity. Since the goal of most of my advocacy is to connect people and systems to people with cognitive disabilities (who are already seen as objects by many), pity is something I can’t risk.

And WORST of all, I can’t do it. Unless I am neck-deep in tragedy I just can’t plan to cry. Believably anyway. And when I am neck-deep in tragedy people tend to hear my emotion and not my point…

I could not use this strategy, but I could see the value of emotion as a bridge between folks so in my own mind I re-framed “make ‘em cry” to “make ‘em feel.” And one of my most effective strategies EVER is to share a laugh.

Now this is not derisive or mean laughter—nor inappropriate silliness, just small laughs that we can share that support me or my point…

For example, I went to a meeting once where most everyone wanted a certain educational (and consequently vocational) path for my daughter. I did not like their plan because my daughter had told us that she wanted to work in the school library someday and their path simply could never lead her there. In sharing our family’s vision I made lots of good points (trust me, I really did!) My list of my daughter’s skills and my idea’s attributes were concrete and clear, but no one’s heart really moved until I asked the following question:

“Can’t you just picture Jenn LOVING to tell small children to SHHHHH?”

Not outrageously hilarious, but everyone at the table started to chuckle, people started to nod and pretty soon they started to come up with creative ideas to form a new plan.

The other thing that happens when I share a laugh with folks is that I start to relate to them a bit differently as well—I see them and me as more equal.

Another time I spoke at a school about disability issues. I was there as part of an agreement the school had made with a parent group because of some very ugly district behaviors. They expected a verbal beating…I did not beat them, I attempted to build a bridge with them. I was not very successful at all at first and then suddenly things seemed to turn around… At the time I really did not know why.

When reading the evaluations after the event I got my answer. Someone wrote, “I was prepared to hate you…until you made me laugh." She went on to say that I did actually have a few good points...

I am not claiming that this will work all the time—in my experience NOTHING works all the time. But it’s painless, it’s free and the more tools we have in our backpack, the better!


Barbara said...

Nicely done!

Pity especially irritates me and there is so much of it in media representations of people with differences - many who are not disabled.

Thank you for an excellent post!

Ruth said...

I'm looking forward to the rest of your series AND am glad you started with laughter. It's really overlooked many times.