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Indiana Protection & Advocacy Services

IPAS > Advocacy > Self Advocacy Rules and Tips Self Advocacy Rules and Tips

The adage that the "squeaky wheel gets the grease" is a true comment on complaining and human nature, but squeaks can be annoying, and, if too loud, can be counterproductive. Nevertheless, assertive, articulate advocacy is a necessity when service providers and other bureaucracies are unwilling to correct either individual or systematic problems.

We suggest five general rules for addressing grievances, poor quality or inadequate services, and discrimination. Underlying them all is the call to be persistent!

Rule #1: After clearly defining the problem, identify possible solutions that will satisfactorily solve the problem. In other words, be clear with what you want before you begin to advocate for yourself.

Advocacy tip: At the early stage of lodging a complaint, the manner of the person making the complaint is often as important as the merit of the complaint. You should be firm but calm, and focus on obtaining a fair and just result. Try your best to leave your emotions out of the discussion.

It may help to acknowledge that the staff or agency point of view may have legitimacy. Although you must hold your ground, an initial statement that you appreciate the difficulty the agency faces will go a long way to softening up any reluctance to assist you. Also, if the issue is resolved, maintaining friendly terms with the staff can minimize any resentment by the people who will likely be implementing the solution.

Rule #2: Prepare your case and know the facts. Talk to organizations and individuals who are familiar with the issues you are trying to address. Research the law to make sure you are on firm ground. Be sure the solution being requested is within the ability of the agency or person to grant.

Advocacy tip: Facts must be articulated accurately to be taken seriously. If the facts are inaccurate then suspicion will be raised and the complaint might fail.

Rule #3: Start at the lower level in the decision chain. This will allow you to learn how the other side is thinking and to give you an opportunity to resolve the problem at a higher level if the initial approach does not work.

Advocacy tip: If you get a "no" at the lower level, there are higher authorities from which a "yes" can be sought. However, if you go to the highest authority first and get a "no" you have limited your options for appeal. It also provides an answer to the almost certain to be asked question: "Have you talked to ‘so and so’ at the lower level?"

You should also check to see if the agency you are confronting has formal or informal appeals procedures and request copies before proceeding with your complaint.

Rule #4: Be prepared to use outside pressure if necessary, and escalate pressure consciously and cautiously.

Advocacy tip: There is always the danger that going outside an agency may engender bad feelings and produce unintended negative consequences. Nevertheless, in an appropriate situation, when nothing else appears to work, outside pressure might turn up the heat and produce a solution. It is important to understand the pros and cons of using outside pressure.

There are a number of avenues of outside appeal, both official and unofficial. For government agencies, complaints may be filed with the mayor (for cities), the governor (for state agencies), and local legislators. Private agencies have a Board of Directors who may be approached. Don’t forget the media: they are often helpful in bringing unfair treatment to light.

Rule #5:  If you should "lose" your fight, "win" by learning how to advocate better.

Advocacy tip: The appeal of last resort is, of course, the courts. Thus a lawsuit is usually a possibility if the complaint has merit and a violation of state or federal law has occurred. But lawsuits are very expensive, slow, and usually do not build good feelings among the parties. Sometimes they do not even result in the desired outcome.

Short of a lawsuit, one should have an alternative course of action in mind should the first advocacy effort fail. This is important even if it means changing the scope of your demands. Compromise may be the only way you can get some of what you want, and some good will might be salvaged as well. (Source: Connecticut Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities)