Skip to main content

Zoom Text:

Curriculum Highlights

Strategies for System Change

  • Creating a Vision
  • Community Organizing
  • State Legislation
  • Federal Legislation
  • Serving on Boards
  • Parliamentary Procedure


  • Participants will create a vision for the year 2020 (and beyond) for people with disabilities.
  • Participants will understand how a bill becomes a law at the state and federal levels.
  • Participants will be able to identify critical federal issues and the process by which they can personally address their concerns.
  • Participants will be able to demonstrate successful techniques for advocating for services to meet the needs of unserved and underserved individuals.
  • Participants will draft and deliver testimony for legislative hearings.
  • Participants will learn how to meet a public official and express concerns.
  • Participants will be able to identify strategies for beginning and sustaining grassroots level organizing.
  • Participants will understand the role of when and how to use the media to effectively promote their issues.
  • Participants will be able to demonstrate proper procedures for conducting a meeting.

Why This Topic Is Important

Most of the Partners in Policymaking curriculum focuses on the “what” of change—changes in policies and actions, and values and attitudes that are necessary if people with developmental disabilities are to enjoy a good life as participating, contributing, and valued members of the community.

This topic focuses on the “how” of change: basic skills, actions and strategies that can be used to influence professionals, policymakers, and politicians.

The problem, of course, is that there is no magic formula for successful change-making. Sometimes you don't know what worked until you've succeeded. And it's not enough to complain or even to be right. Successful change-making requires creativity, tenacity, focus, vision, determination, and the ability to negotiate and persuade. The issues, concerns, and strategies discussed here have been identified as important considerations among effective policymakers.


It’s critically important that you:

  • Have an idea of what you don't like and/or what's not good enough based on your own personal experience.
  • Know what you like, what's working, and why.
  • Clarify for yourself (so you can communicate it to others) why, “This is right…”
  • Have a clear vision of the type of world you'd like to have.
  • Figure out who might agree with you, turning “you” into “we.”
  • Figure out why others might be reluctant to agree with you or support your ideas.
  • Determine if your vision, or your shared vision, can be divided into smaller parts or steps that could be achieved more easily one step at a time.
  • Explore with others, when possible, various ways to pursue your vision in part or in whole. Dream Big!

This process of planning for change is similar to developing an individual plan:

  • Have specific measurable goals and objectives.
  • Decide which strategies to try first.
  • Decide who is going to be responsible for working on which objective and how they'll proceed.
  • Determine how and when you'll monitor/measure your progress toward each objective.
  • Understand when it's time to regroup and/or re-examine your strategies, your successes, and the appeal of your current objectives.
Concept Highlights

People with disabilities, families, and allies need to be a part of the change process. We need to:

  • Know what’s possible.
  • Define the issues.
  • Develop a vision.
  • Work together.
  • Involve elected officials.
  • Clearly communicate with policymakers about what needs to be done, what’s possible, and what’s right and what’s wrong.
  • Involve the media.
  • Know what advocacy organizations exist and if they would be helpful allies.
  • Know how to run meetings.
  • Learn how to organize.
  • Be creative.
  • Be persistent.
  • Generate win/win outcomes!

Review of Issue/Action Planning/Organizing

Here are some considerations for developing a strategic plan:

  • Pick an Issue. Beyond knowing what you like or don't like, you need to select issues that you care about. The Partners training sessions have covered a number of issues that may have motivated you, and there are many other issues that desperately need attention, too.
  • Build Your Energy. Visit the best and the worst disability-related programs. This will give you something to support, something to be outraged about, and a great deal to share with others about how great a difference there is between the best and the worst.
  • Join With Others. If you're part of an organized group, discuss the issues and select those that generate the most passion. If you're not part of an organized group (or if your group isn't willing to take action), look for other committed people to recruit to the cause.
  • Hold Public Officials Accountable. Know your elected officials. Keep their names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses handy. Visit your elected officials as a constituent. Provide them with written information about your concerns. Write letters to them. Vote in every election. Support good candidates. Volunteer in their campaigns. Make sure they know about—and maybe visit—good and bad programs, and that they understand (with help from you), why the good ones are good and the bad ones are bad. Share your vision of the way things could be and should be. Otherwise, how can they make the right choices?
  • Take the Making Your Case online course to help guide you through the process of partnering with policymakers (
  • Court the Media. Get to know local reporters and editors. Develop a positive relationship, and let them know about positive human-interest story ideas, as well as disability programs that are models of the way things should be. Reporters and editors need to know you as a valuable “source,” so they'll call you when they have questions or need more information. React to stories that don't reflect best practices or your vision, or stories that encourage/promote pity, segregation, devaluation, etc. You want a close relationship with people in the media so that when conditions are so bad that something needs to be exposed, they'll respond to your request.  This won't happen unless you nurture the relationship and develop mutual respect before the sky is falling!
  • Reward Positive Behavior. If you're part of an organization, make sure you publicly give awards for positive articles and positive behavior (in support of "the cause") by legislators, media representatives, employers, school personnel, or anyone else who deserves to be reinforced. Say "Thank You" frequently.
  • Don't Forget Politics. Be active in the electoral process, especially if there are positive candidates from any party who share your values and who need your support. Run for public office—many Partners graduates are now elected officials; they are the policymakers!
  • Get Connected. Join social justice organizations, parent groups, advocacy and/or self-advocacy organizations. Join groups online. Learn what organizations exist, what their missions are, and whether you need to work with them for change.
  • Speak Up and Out. Speak out against labels, abuse, neglect, suffering, segregated programs, and the lack of involvement of people with disabilities and families in issues that impact their lives.
  • Support Allies. Actively support colleagues and friends. Show your support with calls, emails, and thank you notes. Stand up with and for people who are allies.
  • Write. Write letters and emails; letters to the editor; letters of support; letters to complain; letters to suggest; letters to officials. Letter-writing campaigns can have a major impact. (Keep copies of letters for your files, for officials, for attorneys, and for follow-up).
  • Testify. Share your personal stories. Any constituent can give testimony. Learn about it. Ask about it. Just do it!
  • Educate. Sponsor workshops, meetings, speakers' bureaus, speeches, information brochures, posters, newspaper articles, conferences, and more.
  • Communicate. Post videos, use all the social media available to you to convey your personal story. Consider phone campaigns, advertisements, press releases, press conferences, booklets, pamphlets, seminars, PowerPoint presentations, movies, resource guides, cable TV programs, radio or TV talk shows, exposés, public service announcements, websites, Facebook, online petitions, Twitter, and listservs.
  • Legal advocacy. Law is a strategy. Review all it has done. Review what changes would not have been made without litigation. Think about it.
  • Fact-finding forums. Think about citizen investigation panels, team meetings, community polls (of consumers, of parents, of neighbors, of the electorate-at-large), seminars by expert panels, radio and TV question and answer programs.
  • Demonstrations and Flash Mobs. These are an established part of the American landscape of social change. From women's suffrage to civil rights to the rights of people with disabilities, this is an acceptable and a powerful way of sending a message by showing up. The powers-that-be don't expect traditionally powerless groups to make demands. Be creative! Be effective!
  • Learn How to Run a Meeting. Every activist needs to know how to organize and run a meeting to be effective.


Click here to view a copy of the Midwest Academy Strategy Chart.
It can be used to help you choose your issues and develop your strategies.

Good luck!