By Beth Fondell, Hammer Advocate, Volunteer & Former Board Member
Everybody likes a good story, right? A “happily ever after” tale has a special appeal.
As a fifth grader, it was the biography of Helen Keller that peaked my interest in the lives of people with disabilities. At the time, I had no idea this particular story would influence the emergence of my own.
In college I had an internship at a group home where six people with disabilities resided. Since I was a theater major, my charge was to support these individuals in developing an “act” they could perform at an upcoming community talent contest. Creating something with the quality that would allow us to be included in the show was a bit daunting, but I needed the credit and they wanted the chance to perform. So, we forged ahead.
For ten weeks, these budding actors, with limited speech and unsteady gaits, rehearsed the same wordless skit … over and over and over again. I was weary of the repetition, but the enthusiasm of the “Prime Mime Players” kept me going. Adorned in costumes of white pancake make-up and black turtlenecks, we entered the show, performed our pantomime, and won second place. A joyful moment ensued, but success was fleeting.
Between the performance and the awards ceremony, our acting troupe removed their make-up. Without make-up on, the judges saw that these contestants had disabilities. The “Prime Mime Players” were sent on their way without a trophy because the judges assumed they were not actually members of the community. My anger at the injustice of this assumption provoked me to action.
The talent contest was sponsored by the city. Therefore, the “actors,” their direct support staff and I attended the next city council meeting. We explained what had happened, and the council members not only listened but helped fix the problem. They presented us with a trophy at a future meeting, and the local press was there to tell the “happily every after” story.
I later learned that what happened at that meeting was called advocacy. It is a fancy word that simply means telling a story to people who have the power to fix things. Since that night, advocating on behalf of children and adults with disabilities as well as their families has become a way of life for me. There are always stories to be told and things that need to be fixed.
The family story I currently tell to policymakers is about my niece, Eva, who lives with Cerebral Palsy. The decisions they make help our family eliminate obstacles that prevent Eva from having access to all things her non-disabled peers do. By itself, Eva’s story may only have a minor influence. But, when combined with all the stories other individuals and families tell about living with disability, an advocacy movement that policymakers cannot ignore is created.
Every individual with disabilities and his/her family supported by Hammer has a story to tell. Hammer has a growing number of advocacy volunteers, led by Terriann Matejcek, who are eager to support everyone in telling their story. “Happily ever after” outcomes occur for people with disabilities when we are prepared to share our stories. After all, even policymakers like a good story!
Bio Note: Beth Fondell has volunteered at Hammer for the past nine years. She presently serves on Hammer’s Public Affairs committee, following her tenure on the board of directors. Beth works as a training coordinator at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, a center focused on disability policy and services. She can be reached at: email@example.com.