(Originally presented at the Indiana Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities Annual Conference in Indianapolis)
Welcome to “Advocacy Online!” I’m going to be talking about how to research disability issues online, how to turn your research into a compelling argument for your cause, and how to communicate that argument with the media, legislators, and stakeholders.
Before we begin, I should mention that we will be using the word “argue” and “argument” a lot. When most people talk about “arguing”, they mean yelling, quarreling, and bickering, like two kids arguing over what to watch next on TV.
When I say “argument”, I am referring to using logic and reason to persuade someone that your cause is right. That is how you effectively advocate for disability issues. And if that doesn’t work, then you can resort to yelling.
Disability advocates might want to argue for a new law, more funding for a particular program, or other solutions to disability issues. For example, imagine a man named Gary who lives in South Bend. Gary uses a wheelchair, and sometimes has trouble getting around when the sidewalk does not have a curb ramp leading to where he wants to go. He decides to ask the city to increase funding to curb ramp projects. But where to start?
A great first step is research. Gary might decide to start with researching the law. What does the law say about curb ramps? How many are required, and where are they required to be? He might decide to research statistics. How many people in South Bend or Saint Joseph County might be affected by the lack of a curb ramp? How many people in the community use wheelchairs or other mobility aids? How many new parents are there who might be walking with a stroller?
However Gary starts his research, the first thing he needs to know is how to evaluate a source.
Part I: Research
How to evaluate a source – How do you judge an online source’s credibility?
What is the top-level domain? Top-level domains (TLD) are the end of a web address, things like .com, .net, and .org. A top-level domain does not automatically make a web source credible, but it is a good place to start.
Originally, .com was intended for “commercial” sites, but it is now the generic TLD. Seeing .com at the end of a website’s name tells you almost nothing.
Most .org sites are nonprofits. Generally, nonprofits will have a lot of information about whatever their specific cause is. However, every nonprofit has an agenda they are promoting, and agendas can lead to bias. I will talk more about bias a little later. For now, I will just say when you are reading a .org, take the information with a grain of salt, and find multiple sources.
.Edu sites are colleges, universities, and other educational organizations and agencies. Generally, these can be considered very reliable. .Gov sites are government agencies. Again, these can be considered generally very reliable. However, even with government and university sites, there can still be biases and inaccuracies.
When was it written? Some research can be fairly old and still be considered valid. The US Census is only done every ten years, so depending on when you’re doing your research, the newest data may be nine years old. But generally speaking, you should look for data that is under five years old.
Who wrote it? Is the author identified? One of the first things you should look for with any online source is an author’s name and bio or byline. Look for any credentials, degrees, professional associations, and so on. If you can’t find any information about the author of an article or website, take the information with a pretty big grain of salt.
If the author is a newspaper reporter, and they are reporting on scientific research, there is a good chance that their interpretation of the research is wrong. Reporters exaggerate the results of scientific research just to attract readers. Imagine that a new scientific study shows that the dye used in making green jelly beans caused 15% of rats to develop cancer when they were given a dose equivalent to eating 500 green jelly beans a day. When newspapers cover the story, the headline reads “Jelly beans cause cancer”.
Even when reporters are trying to cover scientific research honestly and fairly, there is still a good chance that their article will still be inaccurate or misleading. Most newspaper reporters do not have a scientific background, and they are trying to simplify the research so that their readers, who also do not have a scientific background, can spend five minutes skimming the paper over their morning coffee and get the gist of it.
This doesn’t mean that you can never trust a journalist, only that you should not use a newspaper as your primary source.
How objective are they? Notice that I don’t ask “are they objective?” Objectivity is not a yes or no question. Every source is subjective to some degree.
Imagine that you’re watching the evening news, and they said, “There was a fire at 123 Elm Street”. Can such a simple statement still be biased? Yes. Even when you are reporting plain, inarguable facts, the decision of which facts to report can still indicate bias. Why are they talking about a house fire instead of some other event? Maybe there was some local politician caught in a scandal, and they decided to cover the house fire story instead. Maybe the company that owns the TV station also owns an insurance company, and they’re hoping the story will scare people into buying home owner’s insurance.
How do you determine how objective a source is?
Do they mention opposing arguments? Does the source mention sources or experts that disagree? Does the source mention research that contradicts their findings? Does the source mention downsides to their proposal, or the possibility that it might not work as planned?
Where does the source get their data? Every objective, reliable resource should let you know where the information came from, whether it is original research or information compiled from other sources.
One important thing to watch out for is “weasel words”. Weasel words are an attempt to look like you’re citing other sources when you are really just stating an opinion. “Some people say” or “experts say” or “critics say” Passive voice – “It has been said that”
Where do they get their money? If a source receives advertising money, they won’t want to say anything to offend or alienate their advertisers. This includes the advertiser’s company, and the values and agendas of that company. If the source receives government funding, they are biased in favor of whatever government program or agency that signs their checks. If the source is a nonprofit .org website, they are likely biased in favor of a specific cause or agenda. That agenda might be helping the homeless or supporting a specific political party or piece of legislation.
Even when an agenda is good, it can still lead to bias. Imagine there were a website called LetsFeedTheHungry.org. The website publishes great articles on why every city should have community gardens. A community garden lets people grow their own food, save money on groceries, and so on. But the organization is biased in favor of this program, so they never mention any of the possible downsides. A city might need a tax increase to pay for the gardens. Hungry people might not have the time or physical ability to garden, so this program wouldn’t help them. And so on.
What do other experts think? If you are doing any kind of medical research, visit PubMed to verify your sources. PubMed is the leading authority on medical research. Any academic journals or websites they mention can generally be trusted.
Also, check with Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers. Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian, has compiled a large list of “predatory publishers”. Predatory publishers may look legitimate, but they are not. Some of them are counterfeit copies of legitimate sources, some of them are “pay to be published” journals that will publish anything you send them as long as you include a check, and some have other methodological or ethical issues. This is a good resource to check sources against.
Finding sources on Google
• “Wheelchair users in Allen County, Indiana” = Using quotation marks means search for these exact words, in this order.
• “Wheelchair users in * County, Indiana” = The asterisk is a wild card, and will return results for this phrase with any word(s) where the asterisk is. This search will return results for wheelchair users in any county in Indiana.
• “1..50 wheelchair users” = Searches for pages containing numbers in a range. This search will give you articles about anywhere from one to fifty wheelchair users.
• Wheelchair AND Indiana AND Allen AND Indiana = All of these words, but not necessarily in this order
• Wheelchairs OR Autism = Either one of these words
• Wheelchair users Indiana –Ohio = Do not include the word “Ohio”
• “Wheelchair users” site:Fifthfreedom.org = Search for “wheelchair users” only at the website Fifthfreedom.org.
• intitle:wheelchairs = The word “wheelchairs” must occur in the title of the page. This is a good way to find articles that are about this word, rather than just including the word somewhere on the page.
• inurl:wheelchairs = The word “wheelchairs” must occur in the URL of the page. Again, this is a good way to find articles that are about this word, rather than just including the word somewhere on the page.
• Intext:wheelchairs = The word “wheelchairs” must occur in the text of the page. Sometimes Google will ignore quotes around a page, or search for synonyms or related terms. The intext operator forces Google to search for exactly what you asked for. You can also click “search tools”, the “all results” dropdown, and “verbatim”.
• Wheelchairs Filetype:pdf = A pdf file where these words occur. A lot of academic articles are available online only in pdf, and not as regular web pages. You can also use the filetype operator to search for xlsx (Excel); xls (Excel); docx (Word); ppt (PowerPoint). It also works with images, but it’s easier to just click over to the main image search.
You can also filter results by date. After making a search, click the “Search Tools” button, click the “Any Time” dropdown button, choose one of the presets or click “Custom range…” and add any date range you like.
Online research is more than just Google. Here are some places you can go.
The official site to see what Congress is up to. You can search for bills that are currently moving through the legislative process, members of congress, committee reports, and treaties. You can also watch live video of Congress in action, which is handy if you ever have trouble sleeping.
• Open Congress
Another site to track what Congress is up to. Create an account and sign up to track bills, issues, and members of Congress. OpenCongress is very similar to the official Congress.gov site, but some people find it easier to use.
• Indiana General Assembly
The official site to track what the Indiana General Assembly is up to. Similar to Congress.gov, you can search for current legislation, members, and committee reports.
• Open States – Indiana
Create an account to track bills, legislators, and committees. The Open States sites are the state-level equivalent to Open Congress.
Laws and Regulations:
Rules and regulations about accessibility, effective communication, employment, accessible technology, and related issues. The section on “technical assistance materials” are summaries of ADA regulations. They are much easier to understand than the regulations themselves, but if you are doing research on ADA regulations, you should cite the actual regulation and not the summary.
If you have an issue with accessibility, it is a good idea to research ADA regulations to know exactly what your rights are. Remember Gary? If Gary has trouble getting in a store because of narrow doorways, before he complains about accessibility issues, he should research ADA regulations to learn just how wide a doorway is supposed to be.
In the “Contact Us” section, you can find the number for the ADA Information Line, which you can call for answers to your ADA questions. If you have trouble understanding a particular ADA regulation, you can call and ask them to clarify what it means.
Employment laws and regulations. Learn about what constitutes disability discrimination in employment, worker’s rights, employers’ responsibilities, and other related issues.
• Department of Labor
Employment laws, regulations, and statistics
• Annual Disability Statistics Compendium
This annual report compiles statistics from various federal agencies and resources, like the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Veterans Benefits Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• Disability Statistics
A wide variety of statistics from the US Census Bureau, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and other sources.
• National Organization on Disability
Employment, veterans, national disability surveys, and other issues.
• US Census Bureau
The source that other sources quote. A bit more difficult to use than some other sources, but still incredibly useful.
Journal articles are written by scientists, doctors, academics, and other experts. They are also peer reviewed, meaning other experts check that the articles are accurate and valid before they are published. This means that, generally speaking, journal articles are some of the most accurate and reliable sources you can use in your research.
• Google Scholar
A good way to find academic resources and journal articles online. Searches both free and paid resources.
• Directory of Open-Access Journals
A good way to find free journal articles online.
• PEW Research Center
Politics, media, social trends, internet and technology, and more. If you want to know about issues like web accessibility, this is a good place to research statistical data like the number of people with disabilities with internet access.
Part II: Argument
Ethos, pathos, and logos. No, these aren’t the Three Musketeers! These are the modes of persuasion, three ways to convince someone that your argument is correct.
Ethos – Credibility
To convince your audience that you are credible, it helps to emphasize several things about yourself.
You Are Trustworthy
o Bias – Make it clear that you are as unbiased as possible, and have made an effort to consider all sides of the issue, even ones that you disagree with.
In addition to making you look unbiased, knowing the opposition’s arguments allows you to argue more effectively, and make a more convincing case for your own beliefs. You can address criticisms before they are given, which makes you look more prepared, and more credible. It also makes people have to spend more time coming up with opposing arguments.
o Financial motives – If you could benefit financially from the outcome of your argument, disclose this information. If your employer would benefit but you would not benefit directly, disclose that, too.
If you are honest and open about it, most of the time, people will not judge you. But if you make an argument, and people find out later that winning will get you financial benefits, people will assume that money is all you care about and ignore any good points you might have made.
You Are Similar to Your Audience
o Emphasize similar shared experiences – The more your audience feels like they can relate to you, the more they will trust you. Research your audience, get to know who you will be addressing, and find your common ground.
When you write to your legislators, you might not think you have much in common, but you are from the same state, and you are both concerned with the welfare of the people in that state.
o Share personal stories – Being willing to share personal things about yourself makes you appear more trustworthy and thus, more credible.
You Are an Authority
o An individual with disabilities who is offering first-hand, personal experiences.
o A representative of a coalition or other disability group – Even if the group you represent operates out of your garage and is just you and a few friends, having more people in your corner makes you appear more credible.
o A professional in the disability field – Professional experience and a few letters after your name can make people take your argument more seriously, even when your argument isn’t directly related to your field.
Pathos – Emotional Connection
Make an emotional connection with your audience.
• Use visuals, like photos and videos – Videos should have music if possible.
• Figurative Language – It’s okay to get poetic, if you have a talent for it or know someone who does.
• Stories – Individual accounts of people who have been wronged or need help.
• Humor – Be careful of your audience, and try to be inoffensive and appropriate.
Logos – Logical appeal
• Facts – This is what the law says, and where it’s not being followed.
• Research – The statistics show there are X number of people with this problems in this area, compared to a smaller number of people with a similar problem who are already being helped
• Diagrams/Charts – Providing visual aids can make arguments easier to follow. Just be sure to provide an accessible alternative for people who are visually impaired.
• Definitions – Define any words that aren’t commonly used, such as industry terms, health conditions, and abbreviations or acronyms.
Part III: Spreading the word
Connecting with Stakeholders
You can find disability groups in your area at a number of places, such as Fifth Freedom’s website IndianaPop.org. Very often, local groups will need guest speakers for their meetings. If you share their cause, and can arrange your own transportation, you can probably find people who would be happy to have you come speak.
Fifth Freedom’s Advocacy Coordination Team program is a great way to start your own local disability advocacy group. Whether you sign up to start a team with us, or decide to start one on your own, next step is to start looking at your friends, family members, and associates, and thinking about who might like to join you in advocating for disability issues.
Decide how often you would like to meet together, and how long you would like the meetings to be. The more you meet, the more you can get accomplished, but if you ask for too much, it can be hard to get people to join your team. So be flexible, and willing to work around people’s schedules.
Decide where to meet. If anyone needs to use public transportation, you’ll need to find a meeting place on a bus line. Also, it’s important to choose a meeting place that is accessible. Your local library may have free accessible meeting rooms you can use.
Ask people which disability issues are the most important to them – Special Education, public transportation, Medicaid Waivers, and so on. Choosing broad, cross-disability issues can make it easier to find people for your team.
Once you get your team together, you can start working on spreading the word about your cause to legislators and the media.
Writing to Legislators
Addressing the letter – Whether you’re writing to a Senator or Representative at the State or Federal level, the proper term of address is “The Honorable”, regardless of how accurate that term might be.
Some people say that letters to Congress have more impact if you address them directly to the Legislative Assistant handling the bill. Legislative Assistants keep track of pending legislation, conduct research, and offer the politician advice about policy. The Legislative Assistants actually read the letters, so addressing them by name is sure to get their attention.
How do you find their names? The easiest way is to call the Capitol switchboard. Call (202) 224-3121, and ask for the office of whatever member of Congress you are planning on writing. When they connect you to their office, ask whoever answers the phone for the name of the legislative assistant who is handling the issue or bill you are planning to write about. If you are writing to the legislative assistant, you still address your letter to The Honorable Member of Congress, c/o the staff member.
The Bill – If you are writing about a particular piece of legislation, give the name and number of the bill. It doesn’t do any good to write your representative if they don’t know what bill you are talking about. Also, you should state very clearly and very briefly whether you are for or against the bill. This should be one sentence. “I am asking you to oppose H.R. 204, The Let’s Buy Everyone a Pony Act, because I don’t want to clean up after a horse.”
Call To Action – What do you want them to do? Briefly explain the course of action that you would like the official to take. You might want them to:
o Introduce a bill
o Sponsor a bill
o Amend a bill
o Re-introduce a bill that failed to pass in an earlier session
Contacting the Media – Writing editorials
• Headlines – When you write to a newspaper, editorial headlines are written by an editor. However, you should write your own headline, as it serves as a good summary of what your article is going to be about. If you aren’t exactly sure what you want to say, you may find it easier to write your editorial first and then go back and add your headline.
• Thesis statement – Like a headline, your thesis is a summary of what your headline is about. Very often, your thesis is also going to be a call to action – “X should do Y”. Your thesis might be “People with disabilities should know their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act”, or “When you talk about people with disabilities, you should use person-first language.”
• Supporting Points – After you write your thesis, list several supporting points you want to make to prove your main argument. You might try writing a supporting point for each mode of persuasion, ethos, pathos, and logos.
• Inverted pyramid structure – In newspaper writing, it is standard practice to put the most important information first, and work your way down to the least important information. If an article is a little too long, inverted pyramid makes it easy for the editor to make it fit by just cutting off the last paragraph or two. Also, putting the most important information first makes it easy for busy people to skim the newspaper.