As Disability Rights Nebraska prepares to usher in a change in leadership, I sat down with Eric Evans to talk with him about the top five points of advocacy he’d like people to remember during this transition and beyond. All of them are rooted in Eric’s deep passion for and commitment to disability rights and human rights. Since he has been an advocate here in Nebraska for almost 50 years, he has wisdom we can all use.
1. The Importance of Dr. Wolfensberger’s Work: [Side note: Gentle reader, he might also be known to some of you as the father of Social Role Valorization, which is a set of ideas that posits that all people, especially those who are shunted off to the sidelines because of some perceived difference, (that’s “devaluation”) should have the same access to the good things in life that any typical citizen has.]
The key to really understanding devaluation is grokking the role that it plays in the lives of people with disabilities. You could say that devaluation underlies all of the issues that the protection and advocacy system addresses – people being abused, neglected, having their rights taken away and their voices discounted, because of their disability. Those things don’t happen nearly as often to people who are perceived as having value in our society. In this way, protection and advocacy work takes Dr. Wolfensberger’s philosophy on value and roles from abstract to concrete. Thus, “Values-based work is critical,” Eric says.
2. In planning the work of advocating for change, keep these assumptions in mind (once again, courtesy of our friend Dr. Wolfensberger):
• Actors will default.
• Timelines will be missed.
• Unforeseen circumstances will occur.
And so, plan accordingly. Build in safeguards to lessen the impact of these hurdles and you can STILL cause change for the better.
3. The work is not about making a name for yourself. Advocacy requires humility. It requires a degree of selflessness and a focus on the fact that you are part of a much larger movement. Use the injustice as fuel for change. In Eric’s words: “My energy comes from seeing what happens to people and how we can respond to it.”
4. Don’t shy away from doing what’s right – even if it’s personally painful. In the work we do, people might not like you. They might not want to hear what needs to be said. To paraphrase, in some situations: “If you’re not making people angry, then it’s probably not advocacy.”
5. What we do requires that we identify with people with disabilities. This means cultivating relationships with people who are vulnerable or have life experience of a disability. Over the years, I’ve watched as Eric and others here model this behavior. I’ve seen the power of those individual relationships keep people from harm, unintended or not. It’s the ultimate in grassroots advocacy. Wolfensberger, too, felt that those relationships, those connections, are where safety lies. Think about it: if you have a meaningful connection to a person (a good friend, a valued neighbor, sister, uncle, brother, colleague…) the chances that you are going to allow something horrible to happen to them if you have any power to prevent it are greatly reduced, as opposed to feeling like they are a stranger to you or different from you. “All advocacy is, at its core, an exercise in empathy.” – Samantha Power.
There are other things I’ve learned from Dr. Eric A. Evans, about communication and human behavior, creative thought, strategic planning, the best place to buy fresh salmon. He is a courageous introvert who constantly pushes himself to live up to his personal vision of integrity and our organizational vision. As such, he has left his mark – a good one, a meaningful one – on Disability Rights Nebraska and we wish him a happy and fulfilling retirement.
Sharon T. Ohmberger has worked at Disability Rights Nebraska since 1998. She currently serves as the Community Engagement Director, building relationships in the community with supporters, collaborators and partners. She’s also been a potter for almost 30 years and continues to show her work in Nebraska. If you want the tip on the salmon, you can reach her at email@example.com.