Oregon AEI was privileged to ask Senator Sara Gelser to share her thoughts about ways parents can get involved in advocating at the state level on issues that are important to them. 

How did you get involved in advocating on behalf of people with disabilities?

The day before my 21st birthday, I gave birth to my oldest child who was born with physical and developmental disabilities. Through the first years of his life, it became clear to me how much economic, educational, and health care privilege impacted his ability to make progress and exceed expectations. It seemed like such a profound injustice to me that a child could be limited in meeting their potential through lack of access to services, education, or health care. That’s why I got involved with advocacy for children with disabilities. Around the time my son was born (1994), Fairview was also in the news as advocates worked hard to shut it down.  I was profoundly influenced by the stories of abuse and restriction of freedom in the institution, and that shaped my commitment to inclusion, dignity and human rights for all.

Senator Sara Gelser with her son on graduation dayBeing a member of the disability community has been one of the greatest things that has happened in my life.  I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to meet people across the disability spectrum, and to better understand the many ways that disability, race, gender, and class impact each other. I am most grateful for all of the individuals with disabilities who have become my teachers in terms of policy and human rights.  And of course, my son is a pretty awesome guy.

Families are growing concerned about news re: to budget cuts hitting the newspaper. How can they take action to share their concerns?

Families need to work together to prioritize around the budget. Unfortunately, without new revenue, we will be facing significant budget cuts. We need to be honest and thoughtful as we prioritize which services are most important to the health, safety, and dignity of people with disabilities and their families. A coordinated message developed and delivered in collaboration with other partners in the disability community will help advocates be as effective as possible.

How do parents who have never contacted their legislator get involved? In other words, what are some baby steps that lead to bigger steps?
Sending a letter or an email or making an appointment is a great way to start a relationship. Be sure you know what you want to convey and if you have a specific request of the legislator with whom you are meeting. Remember that Oregon has a citizen legislature: Representatives and Senators are teachers, farmers, parents, nurses, pastors, tradespeople, and more. They are there because they care about Oregon, and they want to learn from you.
Why is sharing one’s story important?
Stories are very important to me because policies that look good on paper often don’t work for real people on the ground. We can only make our government programs and services work for individuals if we truly see how it works in every day life. That’s why we all need to hear your stories about support services, employment, education, and more. Sometimes the law or policy is right, but enforcement needs to be stronger. Sometimes, policies are being followed, but it turns out the policies are wrong and need to be changed. Your stories can make that happen.

Do legislators actually read the emails, listen to the messages, and value the visits from constituents?

Yes. I read all of my emails personally and respond to them. I do not get to listen to my voice mails, but my staff summarize them for me with a daily memo and in our staff meetings. Meeting with constituents is one of my favorite activities.

To be most effective, it is good to remember that legislators are inundated with information every day. That means short letters are better than long ones, and being clear about whether you are just sharing information or asking for a specific action is also very helpful. As a Senator, I really want to be responsive to anyone who reaches out to me – even if they don’t live in my district. I can do that better when citizens are clear about their expectations for me.