Winter 2004-2005

Technology and Grassroots Organizing for the Developmentally Disabled in Atlanta
by David Blanchard

On a cool fall evening in Atlanta, dozens of individuals with developmental disabilities and their families and caretakers gathered with state legislators to discuss the myriad issues surrounding disabilities. Hosted by the Atlanta Alliance on Developmental Disabilities, an Atlanta-based nonprofit group, the educational forum included a spirited question-and-answer period and opportunities for one-on-one discussions between the audience and the legislators afterward.

Such outlets for feedback and information sharing with key decision makers represent an integral component of AADD's mission: to build communities of support for individuals, families and children with developmental disabilities. A lofty task, indeed, but one that is possible because AADD has harnessed a technology that enables it to communicate with, mobilize, and empower its members - while at the same time reaching out to new ones.

Thanks to a web-based grassroots application developed through Capitol Impact LLC, AADD has streamlined communication with over 5,000 members and similar organizations it partners with in Georgia. The system, which is integrated into AADD's website and powered by Capitol Impact application technology, is designed to allow AADD to personalize and maximize its message to appropriate legislators and provide a network of contacts for its members. Implemented in July 2003, the system has received rave reviews from users and helped AADD mobilize its members -therefore strengthening its voice in legislative arenas. Recently a member wrote to thank AADD for this online system, saying, "thank you for everything your agency does to keep me informed of what is happening and what I need to be doing. Because of your work, parents and caregivers of disabled persons are experiencing success in advocating. This is a good feeling."

The system's first facet involves a function that alerts members to upcoming forums, issues, and legislation relating to disability issues. Tracking the member's address and voting district, the system provides information about upcoming events, forums and hearings on issues that could potentially affect that member. In addition, the system provides the member with information about his or her corresponding legislator or key decision maker, including contact information and the legislator's voting history, reaction to surveys, and reactions to disability issues. Utilizing such information allows AADD to focus its message and make it more personalized, increasing the potential for the recipient to be responsive to the organization's request for action. With information about relevant issues and the means to contact a key decision maker just a click away, responding and reacting to disability news or issues becomes a simple, quick process.

The system also provides the framework for members to stay informed about upcoming legislation that could affect them - without having to decipher pages of convoluted legalese. Instead, AADD representatives stay abreast of bills in the development stage, earmark those that could affect members, and provide commentary about what the potential legislation would mean for them. Because the information on the system coincides with that of the state's website, it's assured to be as up-to-date as possible.

A third facet of the program provides an immense benefit for graduates of AADD's Partners in Policymaking program, a long-term educational initiative that teaches individuals affected by disabilities how to be self-advocates. The system provides a network of contacts, or partners, grouped by topic areas such as geographic locations, interests, and relevant issues. For example, if a graduate is looking for information or contacts to help advocate for the passage of IDEA, a federal law that protects children with disabilities right to an appropriate education, they can find others around Georgia who have said that they are willing to help in this area.

Because the system is grassroots in nature (facilitating one-on-one contact between parties so well) and quick, comprehensive, and efficient, it has allowed AADD to expand its message and membership in an unprecedented scope. As the organization continues to grow, we will continue to rely on such innovative technology to achieve our mission.

David Blanchard is Director of Public Policy for the Atlanta Alliance on Developmental Disabilities.

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