Andy Arias and Daniel Mellenthin, two members of the core CareerACCESS team, joined CareerACCESS in Washington, D.C. to advocate for Social Security policy reform. Both took the time to reflect on their hard work and the experience as a whole.
The trip to Washington, D.C. was fruitful and enlightening. I’ve been coming to D.C. for the last three years in my role as a disability rights advocate for the Orange County Independent Living Center, and I can honestly say this trip felt the most outcome-driven. The week in DC included many meetings with influential individuals, as well as Congressional Hearings and meet-ups focused on expanding the awareness of CareerACCESS and engaging key stakeholders in our initiative. Our core group of advocates were able to speak openly honestly and strategically about the failures of the Social Security system and how its current avenues for success are lacking for individuals with disabilities.
We learned that we need to mitigate the fear of what changing the Social Security Administration would look like. There is consensus that the system is broken, but fear of taking steps to fix it.
Our greatest accomplishment of the week was creating a wave of movement and hope for the young community of disability advocates by letting them know that something is being done and that they need to get involved in creating systemic changes.
I’m very excited about all the progress we’ve made in a small amount of time and grateful to be moving forward in the process. We strengthened our core group members and extended our membership base. Now, I will be working in the Los Angeles area to engage legislative bodies in our process.
In my second consecutive year coming to our nation’s capital, I didn’t think anything could top the first year. After all, I had met hundreds of powerful and passionate advocates, visited with dozens of legislators to advocate for policy reform that I felt very strongly about (Missouri, US, AND international interests) and was proud to be included in an up-and-coming young professional/aspiring professional “brain trust” of young people with disabilities.
How far we have come from here!
This year, only one later, many of us are sacrificing and making significant, dedicated contributions. Our most recent trip to Washington, D.C. was a perfect example. Despite intermittent constant rain and blasting heat, we visited with several key legislators, making crucial in-roads with staff as well. Our group had significant meetings with AEI, powerful policy analysts and litigators, potential funding sources, and fellow advocates from all across the country. I was able to successfully reach out to dozens of young professionals with disabilities, all from widely varying backgrounds and with unique, compelling stories. 15 to 20 of these young adults expressed strong interest in CareerACCESS, either by asking for how they can follow up with us directly, requesting more information, Facebook/website pages, or, best yet, becoming directly involved in the good fight. A spreadsheet of these contacts will be available to the group shortly.
We had three incredibly productive panels, and although they didn’t go perfectly smoothly, we were able to clearly convey that which we were brought on to do: sharing our stories. Stories are priceless. Stories are not data metrics, memorized and spewed out. Neither are they political rhetoric or buzzwords in overly embellished legislative language. They are real, enticing, sometimes enraging or heartbreaking recounts of real people living real-life.
In front of the NCIL audience, there were some incongruences and areas for improvement that have been addressed. While there were some difficulties faced in this Social Security Disabilty forum, I feel we were able to use this experience to better prepare ourselves for the following panel. Speaking before the Ways and Means staffers, I believe we very poignantly demonstrated what the non-idealized issues at hand were, as well as posting legitimate and viable alternatives to what so clearly isn’t working. We were able to drive home the real life aspects of what we have dealt with, and I was none prouder than when we rolled and walked away from the panel table with the electric air in the normally stagnant room palpable.
For our final panel, we had a very down to earth face-to-face with several high-ranking department heads, ranging from ODEP to DOL, DOJ, Medicaid, EEOC, SSA and notable others. While we dealt with adversity in this meeting as well (gas leak, anyone?), we took initiative and set up a meeting place that would be suitable to accommodate everyone on short notice. Several significant connections were formed here, and it became clear that we have some powerful movers and shakers in policy position, should we provide more concrete terms and definitions for funding, operational costs, clear political asks, phaseout plans, etc. It has become clear that further clarification and uniformity is needed before such individuals are likely to commit, however, but good headway was made.
In short, I feel we did commendable work towards helping others understand what CareerACCESS is, what our initiative seeks to do (and how), and that underlying systemic flaws contribute to the sadly low disability employment rate. I got to know a lot of you better, and the wonderful people in the CareerACCESS team are the reason we will succeed. We are not content, we are not comfortable, and we’re not done yet!