Steps to Being a Self-Advocate
How to start
- Decide what you want. Be clear to yourself about what exactly you need. This helps you set goals as well as be clear to others.
- Get the facts. Know what you are talking about. Be sure information is accurate. Write it down and keep it where you can find it.
- Plan your strategy. Consider what you think will work and the necessary steps it will take to achieve your goals.
- Gather support. Work together with your friends. Ask how others have solved the same or similar problems. Join groups with common concerns.
- Contact organizations. If necessary, call an advocacy organization for additional support.
- Be persistent. Take a firm stand and follow through.
Before you make your first call
- Write down a description of your problem or need. A short paragraph will help you organize your thoughts.
- Gather background and personal information such as your social security number, insurance ID number, etc., so you're prepared to answer potential questions.
- Target your efforts. Identify and talk with the person who can assist you. It may take a few calls to discover which organization can help or who is in charge, but it is worth the effort. Keep trying until you find the right person.
- Places to look include the blue pages of the phone book for mental health services, other human services and government agencies.
- Ask agencies for suggestions to help you find the right contact.
- If you are stuck, call the National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse at 1-800-553-4539.
- You can write to ask for service, to request information, to present facts or to express your opinion.
- Keep the message short and simple - under two pages if possible.
- It's fine to hand-write your message if you don't have access to a typewriter or computer, but make sure it is readable.
- Be clear, specific and to the point about what you want.
- Send copies of your letter to your advocacy agency, legislator or others you want to inform. Put "cc" (copies circulated) at the bottom of the letter. Include a list of those to whom you are sending copies.
- Keep a copy for your records.
- Be sure to follow up with a phone call or another letter.
Making your calls
- State your name, problem and what you need. Be brief. If the first person you talk to cannot help you, ask who can. Ask for the name and position of each person you talk to.
- Keep a list of the dates, times, names and positions of the people you spoke to and the result of each call. This information will be valuable if follow-up advocacy efforts are needed.
- Phone manner can make a difference. Express yourself clearly. Be brief. State your concern and how you want things changed.
- Assert yourself calmly. Stay cool. Speak out, but also remember to listen. Respect others' rights, but do not let them disrespect you.
- If necessary, ask when you can expect the person to call you back or when you can expect the situation to be resolved.
- If needed, make your follow-up call if you haven't heard back or the situation is not resolved as promised.
- Plan what you are going to say, then practice. Friends, tape recorders or mirrors can help.
- Bring someone you trust. Having a trusted person with you can provide support, help you stay focused and can possibly assist later on if you have trouble remembering something that was said in the meeting.
- Dress neatly. Be on time.
- Look people in the eye and shake hands firmly when you greet them.
- Call the person by name.
- Use positive body language. How you say something often makes a greater impression than what you say.
- Speak loudly enough to be heard without shouting.
- State your message clearly and simply.
- Listen to what the other person is saying. If you do not understand, ask questions to clarify.
- Thank people for their time.
- Follow up.
If you are unsatisfied with the result of a call or meeting
- Ask why the person cannot help you. Write down the answer.
- Ask for another person or agency that may be able to help you.
- If you have been treated unfairly, take action to defend your rights:
- Address the issue directly with the person who has treated you unfairly.
- If necessary, talk to the person's immediate supervisor. Your complaint will seem more credible if you appeal one level at a time.
- Stay calm and respectful so no one is likely to see you as the problem.