Introduction: Nothing about us without us!
Welcome to Navigating Advocating! This training series will take you on a voyage exploring a vital part of disability advocacy: the world of civic involvement. The central idea of disability advocacy is “nothing about us without us.” This is the idea that representatives should not make decisions that impact a group without that group’s full and active participation in the decision making process. Learning how to participate in that process is what civic involvement is all about.
The first and perhaps most important step is voting. We’ll show you how to register to vote, update your registration info when you move, preview your ballot, and find your polling place, all online.
After that, we’ll explain some ways to track what your legislators are up to. We’ll show you how to track state and federal bills as they go through the legislative process. After a bill is passed, government organizations have to pass the regulations that actually enforce and enact the new law. We’ll show you how to find proposed regulations.
Finally, we’ll show you the best ways to share your thoughts with legislators and other officials. Learn how to find your representatives’ contact information and some basic tips for letter and email writing. We’ll also explain how to correctly cite laws and regulations. It doesn’t do any good to write your representatives about a bill if they don’t know which bill you’re talking about!
1. Setting sail
Voting – IndianaVoters.com
Registering to vote online
You must register 29 days before the next election in order to vote. To register, click “Register to vote online.” You will need to answer some basic questions, including your name and address. You will also need a driver’s license or state ID. You will have to provide your ID number.
If you need an Indiana ID but don’t have one, you can visit your nearest Bureau of Motor Vehicles office to apply for one. You will need proof of your identity, your Social Security number, and your legal residency in the United States and in Indiana.
For proof of your identity, you can use a birth certificate or US passport. For proof of your Social Security number, you can use your Social Security card, a W-2 tax form, or a pay stub with your name and Social Security number on it. If you use your Social Security card, this is also proof of your legal residency in the United States.
To prove your Indiana residency, you will need a utility bill, a credit card bill, or a doctor or hospital bill. The bills must have your name and address, and they must be no more than 60 days old.
Updating your registration info
If you move or change your name, you need to reregister. If you are reregistering, you will need to provide both your previous address and your new address. (Or previous name and new name.)
Seeing the candidates on your ballot
Of course, candidates enter and drop out of races throughout the campaign season, so the farther it is from Election Day, the less accurate this information will be.
Finding your polling place
Have to be registered to vote to find your polling place, because they find it by looking up your registration record. You will have to enter your name, county, and date of birth. This page also includes a link to a Google map with driving/walking directions and accessibility information.
See who your elected officials are
This link takes you to an interactive map where you can find information on all your elected representatives, all the way from the President of the United States down to School Board members.
The first thing that pops up is a disclaimer that essentially says the system isn’t perfect and there may be errors. Just click “I agree”. Now, to find your representatives’ information, either click the map or enter your address in the form.
The slider on the left controls the zoom. If you just need federal contact information, you can click anywhere on the map. If you need city or county official information, you’ll have to zoom in fairly close to make sure it’s in the right place, or enter your address in manually.
Officials map is in Flash, which may not work with screen readers. Screen reader users can visit http://fifthfreedom.org/findrep.php .
If it’s been awhile since you had a civics class, the search box also includes a link to “Office Descriptions”, who they are and what they do.
You can save your search results by clicking “Reports”, then “Generate Report”, then “Save Report”. You can save reports as PDF files or Excel files. Most people will want PDF.
At the very bottom of the page is a notice about a free screen reading tool, Browsealoud. This is a piece of software you can download to read web pages. However, it only works with a handful of websites, and you have to have some vision to be able to use it. It is not a substitute for a full-fledged screen reader like Jaws or Window Eyes. It would probably be more helpful to people with dyslexia or other reading issues than people with significant visual impairments.
Registering to vote offline
If you have trouble registering to vote online, or if you just want an opportunity to practice your penmanship, you can fill out a paper application. You can download and print an application here: http://fifthfreedom.org/l/voteapp (pdf) .
No form of disability disqualifies anyone from voting, including cognitive, developmental, mental, sensory, or physical disabilities. Unlike our neighbors Ohio and Kentucky, Indiana does not disenfranchise people “judged mentally incompetent by a court of law”.
If you have a disability that might give you trouble with filling out a ballot or using a voting machine, you can designate anyone to come into the voting booth to help you, except for your employer or union representative. If you don’t have a friend or family member available to assist you, you can ask for help before entering the voting booth, and two poll workers (one from each major party) will enter the booth to assist you. They are legally not permitted to tell anyone how you voted.
When you go to your polling place, there may be accessibility problems like a lack of accessible parking or stairs to the entrance but no wheelchair ramp. Polling places are required to be accessible, and voters must be able to get inside the building and into the voting booth. (Even if a voter cannot get inside, it is illegal for poll workers to bring a ballot out to a voter’s car.)
To file a complaint about accessibility issues, call 866-IN-1-VOTE (886-461-8683).
Accessibility requirements for polling places:
1. Each precinct needs to have at least one accessible parking space for people with disabilities. If a facility does not have permanent accessible parking spaces, they must designate at least one accessible space per precinct with proper signage.
2. The designated parking space should be located as near as possible to the entrance to the polls.
(200 feet maximum)*
3. Each designated parking space must be at least 13 feet wide with at least one space that is van accessible. Parking space= 8 ft, aisle= 5 ft, Van accessible space= 8 ft, aisle= 8 ft
4. Parking spaces must be on firm, level ground, and on asphalt or pavement – free of loose gravel.
5. Parking spaces must be clearly designated by post-mounted signs bearing the symbol of accessibility and high enough to be seen when a vehicle is parked in the space.
6. There must also be a level passenger drop-off zone at least 4 feet wide by 20 feet long close to the path of travel.
7. Curbs connected to the parking space must be cut to allow direct access from a walkway to the building’s entrance. A ramped curb may not have a slope of more than a 1 inch rise in 12 inches.
Walkways or Pathways to the Building
1. At least one accessible walkway is required – if the route is not obvious, signs must be placed along the route to direct voters.
2. Walkways must not have unramped steps. The pitch of any slope or ramp may not be more than a 1 inch rise in 20 inches. If unavoidable, a suitable alternative such as a lift must be provided.
3. Stairs along the walkway must have non-slip surfaces and handrails.
4. Walkways and sidewalks must be at least 3 feet wide to accommodate wheelchairs and free of abrupt edges and overhanging objects lower than 80 inches.
5. The walkway should be free of any grating with openings of over 1/2 inch* and breaks in surface above 1/4 inch in height.*
6. The surface of walkways should be firm and stable– no loose gravel. (also free of snow, ice, leaves, debris)*
Ramps and Elevators
1. When a ramp has a vertical rise of greater than 6 inches, railings are required.
2. Ramps and landing areas with drop-offs must have at least a 2 inch edge protection at the side to prevent slipping off the ramp.
3. If there is a door at the top of the ramp, a landing that measures at least 60 inches long and at least as wide as the ramp must be provided in order for a wheelchair to rest while the door is being opened.
4. Elevators should accommodate wheelchair turning space. (60 inch circle)*
5. Elevator controls must be clearly marked with raised lettering and Braille.
1. Each polling place must have one accessible entrance.
2. Doors should have a minimum clear space of 32 inches. This requires a 34-inch or wider door.
3. Doors should be operable without movement requiring a closed fist. Automatic doors should stay open at least 3 seconds.
4. Door thresholds must be no more than ½ inch high.
Inside the Voting Area
1. Instructions for voting should be printed in at least 14-point type* and prominently displayed.*
2. The arrangement of the voting area must allow easy movement.
3. All necessary parts of the voting system can be no higher than 48 inches.
4. Tops of tables and counters must be between 28 and 34 inches high.
5. The writing shelf at voting booths or tables must have a clearance at least 27 inches underneath.
6. Voting booths or tables must be at least 19 inches deep.
7. Magnifying devices should be available for those who request them.*
8. A well-lit area should be present where votes are cast.*
9. Seating should be available for voters waiting their turn to vote.*
* Recommended by Indiana Election Division, but NOT REQUIRED for ADA compliance
2. Land ho!
The main function of the site is looking up legislative information, but there are some other features that are pretty useful.
Under “Current Activity” on the top right, we have links to what is going on right now on the House and Senate floor, including live streaming video and archived video from the past few days. The videos are live captioned and run on Microsoft’s Silverlight plug-in. If you have a newer computer, it’s probably already installed. If not, you may be prompted to download and install it.
There is also a link to the daily digest of the Congressional record, which is a good way to get an overview of what happened on a particular day.
Below that, you can see the top five most searched-for bills. This is a quick way to see what is in the news, what people are advocating for or against, and so on.
How to look up legislation by keyword or bill number
The search box on the front page allows you to search by a word or phrase, or by bill number. The keyword search is useful if you want to read a bill mentioned in a newspaper article, as more often than not, journalists do not give you the title or bill number.
Browsing legislation by legislator
Under “browse by sponsor”, you can search for all of the bills sponsored by a particular senator or representative. This is useful if you want to see a list of everything your elected officials are sponsoring, or if you want to see what other, popular officials are doing, like Tom Harkin or Ron Paul.
Once you find a bill you are interested in, you may wish to share it with someone else. On most websites, you can just copy the URL in your address bar. However, if Congress writes a new version of the bill, that link may expire. Instead of copying the URL in the address bar, click on the green “Share/Save” button. If you want to share on a social media site, click the button for the site you use. If you want to insert a link in a web page, click “save”. Copy and paste this link wherever you want to use it.
If you click “More Browse Options”, you can browse bills by past sessions of Congress. You can also browse by bill title, bill summaries, subject terms, and CBO Cost Estimates.
CBO Cost Estimates are from the Congressional Budget Office, and give a general estimate of how expensive a bill could be over the next decade, and how the bill will be funded. It should also be noted that the CBO does not exactly have a flawless track record of forecasting expenses. CBO tends to underestimate the cost of bills and overestimate the savings from cuts. CBO Cost Estimates are also useful as “Cliff’s Notes” for longer bills, and may be easier to understand than the more technical writing in the bill itself.
You can also browse concurrent resolutions. Concurrent resolutions do not have the force of law. However, passing a resolution on a specific issue declares it the “official” view of Congress, and can lead to legislation being passed later.
Like Thomas.gov, you can search by bill number or legislator. You can also browse by subject, but that listing may not be very useful. The subject listing does not include “disabilities” or most specific conditions like Autism or Paralysis.
The page also includes a link to “complete information for all bills”, which is just what it sounds like. If you pull up this page, you can search for specific terms by clicking Ctrl + F.
Another useful link is “fiscal impact statements”. Fiscal impact statements are similar to CBO Cost Estimates. They explain which state agencies would be impacted by a bill, and expenses or revenue each agency might have due to the bill. Even if you are not particularly interested in spending related to a particular bill, these summaries are often helpful to understand the bill, especially longer bills.
The committee list is essentially another way to browse bills by subject. The various health committees and the transportation committees often deal with legislation of interest to people with disabilities.
Once you find a bill, how do you decide whether to support or oppose it?
As we have already mentioned, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO – http://cbo.gov/ ) is charged with estimating the costs of major pieces of proposed federal legislation. When a bill creates new federal programs or offices, CBO estimates the cost to taxpayers, how much revenue any new taxes or fees would raise, and whether the bill would add to the budget deficit or not. At the state level, Indiana’s fiscal impact statements offer similar kinds of information.
It should be noted that predicting the costs of bills is a little like predicting the weather – the farther out you look, the more difficult it is.
If a bill would prohibit something, does it seem likely or even possible that it will be enforced? While most people agree that texting while driving is dangerous, bans are very difficult to enforce, as it is difficult for police to prove that a driver was texting and not dialing the phone. Unenforceable laws can reduce respect for law as a whole. Attempting to enforce poorly-written or ill-conceived laws might waste time and money that could be better used elsewhere. There is also the “wet paint” effect: many people never think to do something until they see a rule against it.
If the bill would create a large program or complex regulation, but it is only a couple of pages long, it is not finished yet. Additions and amendments to the bill may make it less of a good idea than it originally seemed.
At OpenSecrets.org, you can look up members of Congress and see who their top campaign donors are. Why do campaign donors matter? While donations may be given without any “official” demands behind them, money always has an influence in politics.
If Senator John Smith introduces the “Free Cell Phones For Americans Act”, it may seem like a great bill. Who doesn’t enjoy free things? But OpenSecrets.org shows that Senator Smith’s biggest campaign donor is Cell Phones Inc. Perhaps this bill is designed to benefit cellular phone manufactures more than voters.
Former Senator Chris Dodd currently works as a lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Earlier this year, Dodd strongly encouraged members of Congress to support the pro-Hollywood Stop Online Piracy Act because, the MPAA argues, it would save Hollywood jobs. He said, “Those who count on quote ‘Hollywood’ for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who’s going to stand up for them when their job is at stake. Don’t ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don’t pay any attention to me when my job is at stake.”
Whatever factors you use to evaluate a bill, it’s important to be informed, learn everything you can, and to share that knowledge with others.
3. Mapping new territory
Locating regulations – Federal Register
Whenever Congress passes a new law, numerous other federal agencies actually have to write the rules that enact and enforce that law. For example, if Congress passed a law banning high fructose corn syrup from food products, the FDA would have to write new rules defining which products shouldn’t contain corn syrup and what would happen if a food manufacturer ignored the new law. The federal register is the official journal of the federal government’s regulations.
When an organization starts planning new rules, they are announced in a “notice of proposed rulemaking.” The general public is generally given an opportunity to review and comment on the new rules.
Proposed rules are collected at Regulations.gov. You can search for proposed regulations and post comments.
Which organizations write regulations that effect people with disabilities?
The Department of Justice is in charge of enforcing the accessibility requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2011, the Department of Justice proposed some new rules related to movie theaters. In their notice of proposed rulemaking, they announced that they were considering requiring theaters to show films with closed captioning and video description in at least half of their shows. They also asked for comments on the rules, and asked people to answer questions like:
• Should theaters be encouraged to screen movies with open captions as an alternative?
• Should certain movie theater owners or operators be exempt from these regulations?
• Should theaters also be required to notify their audience/customers about captioned and described movies?
• Should special training for theater staff be required? What kind of training?
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also publish rules. Again in 2011, the Centers published a notice of proposed rulemaking. One proposed change would allow states to serve more than one group with a single Medicaid Waiver. This would allow, for example, states to create a single Waiver program for individuals with developmental disabilities who live with senior caregivers who are also eligible for Medicaid.
Another proposed change would give Medicaid Waiver recipients more control in planning their services. The proposed change would help ensure that Waiver programs that the individual has a meaningful role in directing the process, and that the program offers choices to the individual regarding the services and supports they receive and from whom.
The FCC also makes regulations about closed captioning, accessible communications devices, and other issues of interest to people with disabilities. The FAA makes regulations about accessibility requirements for airplanes and service animals in air travel.
In addition to commenting on new regulations, it is also important to be aware of how one organization’s rules differ from another’s. For example, in 2010, the Department of Justice published regulations changing the definition of “service animal”. These changes essentially restricted “service animal” to working service dogs, such as guide dogs, and did not include emotional support animals, animals sometimes prescribed to people with anxiety or depression issues.
These regulations impacted stores, public transportation, and other areas of life, but the Department of Housing’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity published their own regulations with a much more expansive definition of “service animal.” For the purposes of accommodation requests in housing, emotional support animals are included.
How do you track regulations?
Visit the Federal Register’s website, https://www.federalregister.gov/ . At the top right of the page is the search box. Enter an issue that interests you, such as “Autism” or “health insurance”.
On the right side of the search results, you’ll see “Subscribe”. Click there to be notified via email of new articles related to your search.
On the left side of the search results, you’ll see several ways to narrow your results: by publication date, type, agency, topic, and section. Under “Type”, you can click to view proposed rules (regulations) related to your search.
Once you’re browsing proposed rules, go to the right side of the page where you have options to sort by “RELEVANT”, “NEWEST”, and “OLDEST”. Pick “newest” to look for proposed rules that are still open for comments.
Click on a proposed rule that interests you. If the rule is open for comments, you’ll see a green box on the right labeled “SUBMIT A FORMAL COMMENT.” Clicking there takes you to a form at Regulations.gov where you can email your thoughts and opinions to the relevant agency.
At the top of the pager, you’ll see the name of the agency proposing the rule. You can click on the agency name to visit the agency’s page and view all of their regulations. You can subscribe to the agency’s updates and receive emails when they propose new regulations.
Getting the word out
Before we begin, I should mention something about form letters. A lot of advocacy organizations set up web pages like this:
o The name of a bill, and a couple of paragraphs about why you should support or oppose it
o A form to enter your name and address
o A sample letter to send to Congress
o A button to automatically send the sample letter
Encouraging people to be aware of what Congress is doing, and to contact Congress when a bill or issue impacts them, is a great thing. However, the problem is the sample letter. Even if you tell people “This is just an example letter! Write about the issue in your own words!”, most people will just send the sample letter.
Personal letters have more impact than form letters. Writing about an issue in your own words shows how the issue impacts you. Sending a form letter shows that you can click a button on a website.
Also, it’s important to consider the issue of paper letters versus email. Paper letters have more impact, but they take much longer to reach Congress. Some of you may remember, back in 2001, when several members of Congress allegedly received letters filled with anthrax. Ten years later, paper letters to Congress are still checked for anthrax. Paper letters and packages are routed through a secure facility, and opened and dosed with radiation before being forwarded on to Congress. Sometimes paper letters are lost or accidentally destroyed. So, when you learn about an issue, you want to send a letter as soon as you possibly can. If they are voting on a bill next week, they probably won’t get your letter in time, so you should consider sending an email instead.
Of course, all of this only applies to Congress, not the state legislature.
Finally, remember to show some of that all-too-uncommon common courtesy. Be brief and polite. The staff member reading your letter reads letters like yours all day, every day. They won’t read your autobiography. Also, keep in mind that it’s a staff member, not the official, reading the letter. You might be really angry at some politician, but don’t take it out on his staff. The letter reader doesn’t control what his boss does.
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.
The Honorable [Full Name]
Dear [Full Name]
Body of the letter…
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. Be sure to ask how their name is spelled. Even if their name is “John Smith”, it might be spelled “J-o-n S-m-y-t-h”.
If you are writing to the legislative assistant, you still address your letter to The Honorable Member of Congress, c/o the staff member.
Member Of Congress
If you decide to address your letter to the Legislative Assistant, be sure to share their name with anyone else who might write about the bill.
Before you give your opinion on an issue, you have to let them know why they should care what you think. Politicians want the opinions of four kinds of people:
1. Voters In Their District – Obviously, politicians want votes so they can keep their jobs. If you are in the politician’s district, say so. They care more about you if they know you can vote to keep them in – or kick them out – of office.
2. Stakeholders – A “stakeholder” is someone who will be directly impacted by the bill or issue.
3. Experts – People who have professional experience in a particular area.
4. Group representatives – A member of an organization who is speaking on the organization’s behalf. This could be a nonprofit, a social club, or some advocacy organization.
The more things on this list you are, the more consideration will be given to your letter.
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.”
EXPAND ON THE ISSUE
In the next paragraph, expand on the previous sentence. Give a couple of examples of how the bill or issue directly affects you and/or people you know. If you have professional experience in the issue, expand upon that.
When you are talking about disability issues, it helps to mention the sheer number of people with disabilities in the country or the state. According to the 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, there are over 36 million people with disabilities in the United States, and over 800,000 in Indiana. If you are writing a letter and need specific statistics, of course you can contact Fifth Freedom and we can help you find them.
Also, if the politician has done something or supported a bill or issue that benefited you, this is a good place to mention it. People are always more likely to do what you want when you include a compliment with your criticism.
CALL TO ACTION
What do you want them to do? Briefly explain the course of action that you would like the official to take.
There might not be a particular bill that you are asking them to support or oppose. You might be writing them just to remind them that people need more funding for Waiver services, or public transportation, or whatever particular program you support. You might even just ask them to be aware of the needs of people with disabilities and to make an effort to become more informed.
If you do have a bill you want them to support or oppose, what you ask them to do depends on where the bill is in the political process. You can keep track of bills at OpenCongress.org, IN.gov, or of course at Fifth Freedom’s bill tracker.
o If the bill has just been introduced, you might ask them to become a sponsor, to officially sign on as supporting and advocating for the bill.
o If the bill is going through committee hearings, you might ask them to amend the bill, to add or remove a provision.
o If the bill has passed and become law, you can still contact your representatives about it. If you are against a new law, you can ask them to not fund it or even to repeal it. Repealing bills is always unlikely. During a campaign, politicians often talk about how much they oppose a law passed by the other party, but once they’re elected, they almost never make the effort to repeal it. If you are for a new law, you can ask them to follow through and make sure it gets implemented and funded. A new law might create a new program or service, but they don’t have to actually fund it.
Your name, organization and job title if applicable, and your full address.
Keep a copy of the letter for your records. Be sure to note when and where you sent it. If you send other letters about the same issue, include a reference to your earlier letters. When bills you support pass, these records come in handy when you send your legislators thank-you notes.