Let Every Voice Be Heard . . . A "How To" Guide for Communicating With Your Legislator.
People with disabilities do not have equal access to opportunities in employment, education, housing, travel, social life or health protection. The government, which is set up to protect and serve rights, often ends up being the overseer of institutionalized discrimination. As a social and political class, people with disabilities are particularly underprivileged and disadvantaged.
People with disabilities can begin to claim their American birthright by using the system that currently discriminates against them. By shining a light on the unfair treatment and unequal access to this country's political and economic harvest, you will begin to change the system for all people with disabilities.
Lawmakers must begin to understand that becoming a "prisoner of benevolence"* is not a substitute for access or opportunity. We must teach them that people with disabilities face far more incapacitation from societal and institutional barriers than actual personal disability.
This TECHNOTE is dedicated to the topic of calling and writing lawmakers. Once people with disabilities begin an honest dialogue with lawmakers about the condition of their lives lawmakers will begin to understand how the decisions they make affect people with disabilities.
Like it or not, the dialogue about government's role in this country is different than it was a decade ago. Strategies that brought favorable attention then, many now believe are ineffective. Like any good strategist, advocates for people with disabilities must change the type of offense they use when the battle field or opponent changes. The middle part of this century saw many changes we take for granted today. People "in the trenches" rallied troops to march and protest.
While marches and protests still attract attention today, those strategies may not be the most effective means of reforming the current system. Today's political and economic climates require advocates to shift from arguments of a high moral ground of civil rights to cost effectiveness and fiscal responsibility.
We are in luck though. Lucky because granting people with disabilities equal access and civil rights are both cost effective and fiscally responsible. For example, disability advocates talk about the need for fair housing. We say that people with disabilities need to get out of institutions and into independent living situations. It is a statistical fact that housing people in community-based settings costs much less than housing them inside an institution.
Forty-nine million Americans with disabilities want what all Americans want . . . the touchstone of American identity . . . independence. That is no small number. If we all work together, with one voice, lawmakers can and will respond.
Calling A Lawmaker
Most legislators are happy to speak with members of their constituency when time allows. The General Assembly's spring session is extremely busy. The later you call in session the less likely it is that you will speak directly to a lawmaker. If you speak with a staffer or administrative assistant, keep in mind that he/she serves as the ears of a legislator. What you say and how you say it will make a difference in how the staffer conveys your message.
Do not make the fact you were unable to speak to the legislator directly an issue. Often his/her staff will ask you to call back at a certain time. The legislator may also call you back when he/she has the time. So, acting business like is important as is using appropriate language during your conversation. Due to committee schedules and the sheer volume of legislation, you may have no other choice but to call a legislator late in the session. Remember . . . it is a hectic time. Try to understand the time constraints and number of people who demand his or her ear during that time. Make your call count.
When calling a legislator concerning a bill try to do so 24-48 hours before the bill is to be considered. You should know the following before calling:
- The bill's number
- The short title
- The sponsor
- Where and when the bill is considered
- Why you oppose or support the bill
Use the same approach when calling that you would if you were writing a legislator. In your conversation state your position clearly, tell why you feel the way you do. Do not monopolize the conversation, allow the legislator time to ask you questions. You may be the only consumer contact they have about a bill. You may have more influence than a legislator's colleague or a lobbyist when you use the correct approach. If the legislator asks you about the bill and you do not know the answer, be honest and tell him/her you do not know. Then tell the legislator you would be glad to try to find the answer and get back with him/her.
Following your phone call, if the legislator votes in the way you requested he/she vote, write to him/her expressing your appreciation for the vote. If you personally speak to a legislator, always write a thank-you note. Never write a lawmaker verbally attacking him/her for how he/she voted on a certain bill. The legislator who is your enemy today may be your best friend the next time you need a vote on a bill.
Never identify yourself as a spokesperson for any group unless you are. You carry more weight being a consumer than a staff member or spokesperson for an organization.
Writing a Lawmaker
One of the most effective ways of expressing your concerns to a lawmaker is to write a letter. A lawmaker may receive thousands of letters about hundreds of topics every year. To insure that a lawmaker reads and understands your letter, try following some of these simple suggestions.
Always be business like when writing a lawmaker. While using a computer or typewriter is not mandatory, it does make the letter look neater. However, if you do not have a computer or typewriter a neat handwritten letter is fine.
When you write a legislator always use his/her appropriate title. For a member of the Illinois House of Representatives the title is, Representative _______ (fill in the name). For a member of the United States Congress the title is, Congressman/Congresswoman ________ (fill in the name). Senator Smith is the appropriate title, for a member of either the United States or Illinois Senate.
The only time a title of a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, the State Senate or the United States Congress or Senate is different is when the lawmaker is a member of leadership. Then the title would reflect their position. Refer to the Speaker of the House as Speaker _______, and the President of the Illinois Senate as President ______. Minority leaders have the title of, Leader Smith or Democratic Leader Smith or Republican Leader Smith depending on the party.
For the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Comptroller, or Treasurer their last name always follows the title; i.e., Governor _____.
When writing the President of the United States two forms are acceptable:
The White House
Washington, D.C. 20050
The White House
Washington, D.C. 20050
If you are writing a state legislator while the General Assembly is in session (you will usually be) make sure you use his/her Springfield office address. Use their district office when the General Assembly is not in session. Generally, session meets from January through May and again for a few weeks in November each year.
When writing a lawmaker about a piece of legislation, be sure to use the correct citation in the letter. Illinois bills introduced in the House carry the designation of HB; bills introduced in the Senate receive a SB designation. Federal legislation originating in the House carry the designation of HR (House Resolution) and federal legislation originating in the Senate carry a SR (Senate Resolution) designation.
Without the correct citation (i.e., HB 1234), a lawmaker and his/her staff will not know what bill positively or negatively concerns you. Make sure you give the citation, the bill's location and, if possible, the sponsor's name and short title of the bill.
Legislators introduce more than 3,000 bills each session. Naturally, knowing everything about each bill is impossible for any lawmaker. This makes using the correct citation significant in your letter. Do not write to a Senator concerning a house bill unless that bill is in the Senate. The same goes for writing a Representative concerning a senate bill. Unless a bill is in the lawmaker's chamber he/she can do little about it.
When you write a lawmaker, get to the point quickly. Tell the lawmaker why you support or oppose a bill. Never, under any circumstances, use abusive or threatening language. Never say, "as a voter in your district." If you oppose or support a bill, do so on the merits of the bill. Try not to write from an ideological point of view or from a political perspective.
Keep in mind that what you say, and how you say it, may influence the way a lawmaker votes on a bill. Using threatening or abusive language only leaves the lawmaker with a negative view of your opinion. If you have a skeptical view of the lawmaker or you have disagreed with them in the past, do not let that become part of your letter. The best time to address past differences with a lawmaker is the first Tuesday in November, election day.
End your letter on a positive note. Thank the lawmaker for his/her time and attention to your letter. Be specific about your feelings concerning the bill. Do not send form letters. Write to each lawmaker individually. Your letter should be no longer than one page typed. Short, to the point, letters get more attention than long detailed ones.
Sign and print your name, address and evening and daytime phone numbers when you close the letter. Lawmakers throw away unsigned letters and those with no address.
If you need the name or address of your lawmaker you may call your local library or write or call the State Board of Elections at:
Board of Elections
100 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60601
Board of Elections
1020 South Spring Street
Springfield, IL 62708
This is the wrong way to write a letter to a lawmaker
March 1, 2000
E-1 Stratton Building
Springfield, IL 62706
Just in case you really do read your mail, I want to tell you something. I think the bill that will fund ITN is a good one. I know how you have voted in the past so it doesn't surprise me that you probably won't vote for ITN. In case you don't know it, there are a bunch of people with disabilities who live in your district. We are getting damn sick and tired of the legislature using us to balance the state budget!
People with disabilities do vote, and as a voter in your district you better believe that we will remember how you vote on this bill and come the next election you will pay for it if you vote no. I realize that you politicians only care about the big money contributors, you always forget about us people that you think don't matter, but just once I would like to see you do the right thing.
John Q. Public
(Sample Letter Only)
This is the correct way to write a letter to a lawmaker
March 1, 2000
Representative Joe Smith
Illinois House of Representatives
E-1 Stratton Building
Springfield, IL 62706
Dear Representative Smith:
I am writing to urge your support of House Bill 0000, sponsored by Representative Clayton. The House Health Care and Human Services Committee will hear it on June 12, 1999.
I believe the issue of funding the Illinois Technology Network (ITN) is very important to the citizens of Illinois that benefit from assistive technology. In the past my family and I have relied on assistive technology as a tool to complete both job-related and personal tasks. Assistive technology has aided our family to live life more completely. I feel that ITN is an important link between those who rely on assistive technology and the ever changing area of technology and its application for individuals with disabilities.
Without ITN, many of your constituents would be without the resources that enable them to take part in their community as active and contributing citizens.
I urge your support of House Bill 0000.
John Q. Public
1234 Center Road
Your Town, IL 60000
Home Phone 000-000-0000
Work Phone 000-000-0000
(Sample Letter Only)
Visiting A Lawmaker
You can use many ways to impress a lawmaker with how you feel about a bill. An extremely effective way is to visit them in person. Depending on the time of the year, your schedule and the type of visit you want, you need to decide if you wish to visit your lawmaker in his or her district or the Springfield office.
No matter where you decide to visit, you will have a limited choice of appointments to choose from, especially if the legislature is in session. During session, the General Assembly usually meets from Tuesday through Thursday. On Mondays, lawmakers usually travel. However, if you cannot get to the Springfield office most lawmakers will find the time to meet with you in their district office. Be sure you make the office aware of your dilemma if you cannot get to Springfield. The best time to make a district office visit is while the General Assembly is not in session. In the less harried atmosphere, you can make your lawmaker aware of your activism and your issues without having the pressure of pending legislation involved.
Once the General Assembly convenes in Springfield in January, lawmakers get extremely busy. Usually in the mornings they have committee hearings and afternoons for action on the chamber floor. When they are not in a committee meeting or on the chamber floor, most lawmakers are in their offices. Meeting with a lawmaker in his/her office is usually the best time to address pending legislation.
You must make an appointment. The lawmaker's staff may ask you to outline the purpose of the meeting, provide a list of who will be with you and how long the meeting will take. They will also ask whether you represent a group or political action committee. These are standard questions they ask everyone. This is when you will need to know all the information about a piece of legislation that you can. Like calling or writing a letter, you must know before you make an appointment the bill number, sponsor, short title and the current bill's status. This allows the staff member to pull the bill for the lawmaker so he/she can be ready for your meeting by giving him/her a chance to review it.
There is no magic formula to use when talking with a lawmaker. Be yourself. Speak in a clear manner that invites questions. Present your stand on the bill and explain your position. Give personal examples when possible. If the lawmaker asks questions that you cannot answer, be honest, there is nothing wrong with saying you do not know. Tell them you will be glad to try to find the answer and get back to them. Never, under any circumstances, state your opinion as policy or an official stand of any group unless they authorize you to act as a spokesperson for that group.
A lawmaker may offer an opinion about a bill or explain his/her position. Do not push a lawmaker to take a stand on the bill during your meeting. Most lawmakers won't anyway. You will do more harm than good. If you know who opposes your view, state why you differ with the opposition on the bill. Do not bad mouth the opposition or tell the lawmaker what you think of them and their views. Simply state why you feel differently about the issue.
If you bring other people to your appointment, or if you are part of a group, keep these points in mind. Decide who will be the main speaker for your group. Others may add comments or information, but one person should speak for the group. Keep to the issue. Straying from your goal diminishes your issues and limits your visit's effectiveness. Each member of the group should follow up with a thank-you to the lawmaker following the visit.
You may leave materials with the lawmaker. The more information you provide them the better. However, this information should be clear and to the point. It should address exclusively the purpose for which you met. Two concise, well-written, pages will go further than a ream of nothing special.
Be sure to thank him/her for his/her time at the end of the meeting. Send a thank you note as soon as you get home.
A Word on Party Leadership
The chance of getting an appointment with a member of leadership is remote at best. Even if your local lawmaker is not a member of leadership, they will let leadership know about the opinions they are getting on a bill. Leadership often asks rank and file House or Senate members about bills and public opinion regarding the bill. As a consumer you should not contact members of leadership unless they are your Representative or Senator. Like everyone else, lawmakers have their own protocols. Again, trying to go around the process will do more harm then good.
Petitions are popular tools to convey the importance of a concern to lawmakers. They offer a quick way of expressing citizens' concern with an issue. When used properly they can be effective. If you elect to circulate a petition to send to lawmakers keep the following in mind:
- Only Illinois residents should sign the petition.
- Provide an area on the petition for address and phone number. Signatures without addresses and phone numbers are usually considered fraudulent.
- Number the signature lines on a petition. It makes it easier for you and the lawmaker to see the number of signers quickly.
- Make a copy of the petition before you send it to the lawmaker. Send the original, not a copy.
Some advocates for people with disabilities work well outside the system . . . pushing the envelope. These advocates want to revolutionize the system . . . to tear it down and begin again. Others work well within, massaging legislation, reforming and sometimes even creating new and better laws. These advocates want to build on the current strengths and make the system better.
Neither position is wrong. Both positions come from positions of logic and strength. Together, advocates with differing views will move our civil rights struggle farther down the road to equal access.
IATP hopes this TECHNOTE offers those who want to work with legislators some strategies to make that work more productive.
* Ira Glasser, ACLU