Friday, July 5, 2013

LPA visits Capitol Hill

two men of short stature standing outside Senate Office Door
Ethan Crough (right) and Gary Arnold of LPA 
From June 28 through July 4, 2013, more than 2,100 people with dwarfism, their family members and friends gathered in Washington, D.C. for the Annual Little People of America Conference.  In many ways, the 2013 Conference was similar to previous conferences.  Like every other year, a DJ spun records each night to which hundreds of people young and old danced.  There was an expo with many vendors who displayed products that support people with dwarfism.  There were three days of informative workshops, and more than a score of doctors traveled from around the country to provide free medical consultations.  Each of these is vital to the success of each conference. 

Unlike year's past, the 2013 Conference was held in Washington, D.C.  Washington presented an opportunity to schedule new programming, including a trip to Capitol Hill.  To take advantage of this opportunity, a handful of LPA Members met early in the morning on Friday, June 28, and caught a cab from the hotel to the seat of the Federal Government.  Our group included members from Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.  Between us, we scheduled seven visits with the offices of National Senators and U.S. Representatives.  We entered the meetings equipped with a Fact Sheet about Little People of America and a copy of LPA's Policy Agenda, which had been adopted by LPA's Board of Directors in April 2013.  The policy agenda was an exciting development for Little People of America.  With advocacy around the ban of dwarf tossing and with a handful of medical position statements, the organization certainly incorporates policy work, but to my knowledge the agenda adopted in April is the organization's first standing policy agenda.  The agenda incorporates an International Disability Rights Treaty, protections for people with pre-existing conditions, anti-bullying legislation, and a measure for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop using the word "midget" as a size classification for certain products.

For the most part, the group met with staff who were very supportive.  The day included visits to the offices of Senator Harkin of Iowa, Senator Durbin of Illinois, and Representative Davis of Illinois, all of whom are historically strong on disability rights issues, which by and large is the umbrella that the LPA agenda falls under.  During a visit to Senator Kirk's office (Illinois), I was told by his staff that the Senator had decided to support the International Disability Treaty.  Immediately following the visit, my voice and hands shook a little bit as a I called the Access Living office in Chicago to share the news.  For months, Access Living and other disability groups had been organizing a grassroots campaign to earn Kirk's support for the Treaty.  News of Kirk's support for the Treaty quickly spread over social media.

Olga, her family and Gary Arnold with Rep. Davis
The visits to Capitol Hill were about more than earning support for a policy agenda.  After all, most of the people we met with were already in support of most agenda items.  The visits were just as much about Little People of America introducing itself to the Federal Government and about Little People of America members growing comfortable with policy.

Indeed, by the end of the day, a few of us had grown comfortable with the process.  Olga is a member of Little People of America from Florida.  She is the mother of a ten-year-old person of short stature and two average stature children. The International Liaison for Spanish Speaking Countries, Olga brought her entire family along for the legislative visits.  Around 2:30 p.m., the group finished up the last of our scheduled visits.  We gathered near one of the exits of the Senate Hart Building and were preparing to go outside, catch a few cabs, and return to the hotel.  But before we had a chance to leave, Olga's face grimaced.  She looked to her right at the staff directory and then mentioned the name of Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky.  Paul is against the International Treaty and has spoken in the past against the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Olga knew that Paul was pro-life.  In Olga's mind, there was an inherent contradiction between supporting the rights of a child inside the womb, and not supporting the rights of a disabled child after he or she had been born.  Though we had not scheduled a visit with Paul's staff, Olga wanted to stop by his office.  For a few minutes we talked about what to do.  But it was clear, if we didn't stop by Paul's office, there would be a deep feeling of dissatisfaction.

A few minutes later, six of us stepped through Senator Paul's door.  Like most of the other Senators and Representatives that day, Senator Paul wasn't there, but Olga persuaded the person at the front desk to find a policy person on Paul's staff who could spend about ten minutes with our group.  We went down the hall to one of the Senator's conference rooms and sat down with a member of Paul's Foreign Policy staff.  Olga went to work.  She voiced her concern over the apparent contradiction in positions and explained why she supported the treaty.  Olga's husband chimed in, adding that the treaty also supported U.S. Veterans traveling abroad. The young staff person listened intently and nodded as they spoke.  Then he thumbed through a writing pad he carried, looking for notes he had made previously about the Treaty.  I tensed up in anticipation of what he might say, worried that we might not have a response.  But Olga, her family, and I, were ready.  Nothing the staffer said could stand up to intrinsic importance of the Human Rights of people with disabilities here in the United States and around the world. 

We finished the meeting and returned to the hotel full of energy that came from making the unexpected visit to Senator Paul's office. We knew that Paul would not change his vote as a result of the visit, but we were excited.  By simply making visits to offices on Capitol Hill we had accomplished what we set out to do. We introduced Little People of America to many offices. But within that modest goal, we pushed the envelop further by making unscheduled visits and putting the importance of our policy agenda on the same level as the organization. I look forward to more such visits in the future.

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