For months, I've heard that phrase attached to various groups: disabled military veterans, students in Parkland, Florida and women in the Women's March or #MeToo movement.
I don't think you can give a voice to someone. Most people are well aware of their needs, wants and dreams. Just ask them. What they might need help with is removing the barriers that prevent them from sharing their voices and being heard.
Earlier in my life, I gladly accepted requests to speak on behalf of others. With experience, my skills became quite good. But I was often troubled by the thought that the people I was trying to help might have been better off speaking for themselves. Those I represented were far from voiceless. Instead, they needed communication skills, access to the media and those in power, as well as assurances that their voices mattered. Any power I possessed could be used for more long-term good by equalizing power for others.
Ironically, my own voice became more authentic the more I helped others speak for themselves. No longer bound by the immense responsibility of “getting it right for so many,” I discovered my own passions. Using my skills to collaborate with others became an opportunity to truly think together.
Recently, I heard from a business owner who had spent a great deal of effort and expense to make their building accessible. The problem was that few people with disabilities were using it. The business owner asked for my help. On the phone, the CEO said “I thought if we met the minimums of the ADA, we'd have all the business we'd ever want.”
At my first site visit, I listened a lot and asked “What feedback did you receive before and after your project, from persons with disabilities?” The CEO replied, “we didn't ask for feedback.” One staffer said, “I now see that our physical accessibility was only part of the equation.” Later, during a focus group meeting I led, potential customers said one reason they hadn't visited or returned to the business was because nobody with a disability was in the company's advertising.
Today, people worldwide can share their voices through blogs, websites and podcasts. When my students complain about the lack of diversity in our area, I encourage them to look beyond what they can easily see on our northern main streets. As an example, one group of students attended a church service on Mackinaw Island for Jamaicans working and living on the island. Though they'd always lived among Jamaicans in Traverse City and Petoskey, the students hadn't heard about their lives. Returning from the island, one student said “It's so obvious to me now. Just because I don't know someone's experience or their history, doesn't make them invisible.”
Contact Susan Odgers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She is a 31-year resident of Traverse City and has been using a wheelchair for 42 years. Odgers is a faculty member of Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University.
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