Is it more correct to call someone a “disabled person” or “handicapped”? Neither.
“People are treated like third-class citizens when they are labeled with a disability,” says Rufus Addison, the support coordinator at Citizen Advocacy Athens-Clarke. “If you have a disability, they keep you in poverty and they keep you down.”
Citizen Advocacy is a national non-profit organization that strives to build one-on-one personal relationships between individuals with disabilities in the community and well-connected citizens. These relationships offer and opportunity to advocate and protect people at risk of becoming socially isolated from the community. The organization currently supports over 48 matches in the Athens-Clarke community.
Addison spends most of his time looking for people whose lives could be enhanced through Citizen Advocacy. His job is to help create matches in the community. Usually the first step is to find somebody with a disability. It is a heavily involved process that requires him to actively network and engage with people from all walks of life.
“It’s really easy to find people with disabilities,” he says. “They are usually in nursing homes or low-income housing.”
In many cases, a potential partner is introduced through a family member, but coordinators at Citizen Advocacy make sure consider the needs of each individual. The next step is to determine what kind of relationships will be most fulfilling based on the individual’s interests. Then Addison helps find someone with an “ordinary life” in the community who is well connected and involved. What a valued community member contributes to the relationship will vary, but they are always called the “advocate” to their “partner.”
“When we are searching for an advocate, most of the time we are looking for people who show consistency and commitment,” Addison says. “An advocate has to be savvy. They have to be able to communicate effectively. They should show honesty, integrity and they have to be self-motivated. But really, the most important thing for an advocate is, do they have time?”
When a successful partnership is made, it develops into a friendship that lasts, independent from the organization. Coordinators at Citizen Advocacy only facilitate the introduction process. Then they step back and only engage the advocate and their partner when needed.
“Our longest relationship has been going on since about 1994,” Addison says. “They don’t need us to check in on them.”
Citizen Advocacy Athens-Clarke lacks in exposure and numbers. An Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice estimated that 12,824 non-institutionalized people ages 5 to 65 were classified as disabled in Athens-Clarke County. That number overwhelms the few matches Citizen Advocacy makes in a year, but the types of relationships are what make this bare bones organization work. One advocate, Jean Guard, commends the level of involvement. She knows first-hand that the work is more valuable than most people can appreciate.
“The superficial service driven approach- it’s out there,” Guard says, noting that Citizen Advocacy is different from other organizations.
Guard has been an advocate for a 40-year-old man with a disability for 8 years now. She learned about Citizen Advocacy in Athens through her involvement with her daughter who has a developmental disorder. She was training to do work with another organization with a focus on student with special education needs when she discovered Citizen Advocacy. The organization’s effort to focus on the entire lifespan of a person was remarkable to her.
“That one person who really knows the protégée or partner, and even knows them the way a family member knows them,” she says, “that just can’t be replaced.”
It is the same quality that inspires coordinator Nicole Cashin to work with the advocacy. Change comes through small successes, but something feels bigger and more important to the work she does by helping change a single person’s life.
“I am helping bring happiness to people through what we all crave the most,” Cashin says. “It’s that heart-to-heart human connection.”
Approaching somebody with a disability can be difficult. Especially when these individuals have become marginalized in our society. For the people at citizen advocacy it is worthwhile, though. They are helping individuals with and without disabilities live more fulfilling lives.
“There are a lot of negative things I see,” Addison says, “But it has been a tremendous experience for me. To see the relationships grow and develop… that has been such a blessing.”
Citizen Advocacy unites a diverse range of people. Advocates come from different age groups, professions and jobs. Relationships are at the heart of this organization, but that is not the only way to help. To find out how you can support Citizen Advocacy Athen-Clarke email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
“Everyone is important,” Addison says. ”We can’t shut them out just because they have a disability.”