At the end of February, I will make my annual trek to Denver to celebrate Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day at the Capitol.
The day is one part Civics 101 and one part reminding our state legislators of the services they fund for children and adults with IDD, such as autism, cerebral palsy or Down syndrome.
During the legislative session lasting from early January to the beginning of May, legislators have these special “awareness” days on almost a daily basis. But let’s face it, there’s a lot to be aware of in state government.
Our IDD Awareness Day begins with proclamations on the floor of both the House and the Senate. People with IDD are invited to participate and generally lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Then a representative or senator will present a bill proclaiming “Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day,” on Feb. 27, and their colleagues will line up in bipartisan solidarity to recognize the service agencies and people with IDD in their constituency.
After our proclamation, we cram into the upper galleries to watch our state government at work. If you’ve never watched a legislative session, I highly recommend it. It somehow manages to be equally interesting and tedious. And your legislators are a rowdy lot. No teacher would ever let them get away with the constant racket and side conversations!
We round out the day with a luncheon for direct service providers, people with intellectual disabilities, family members and legislators. There are speakers and awards and updates about current state initiatives.
Now, if you are thinking, “hold on, this is sounding suspiciously like lobbying,” then I say to you, “absolutely correct.” While there is much confusion around the legalities of nonprofit lobbying, the bottom line is that nonprofits can (and often should!) lobby for issues that affect or further our mission.
There are limits on how much nonprofits can lobby, and we are allowed to take positions on issues, but not endorse candidates. Otherwise, lobbying and advocacy can be a crucial part of nonprofit work.
We certainly speak up when the state Legislature is considering actions that will impact our state funding (as applicable) or that create or change regulations for our industry.
More importantly, nonprofits can be a strong voice for our mission and the people we represent.
For instance, Mothers Against Drunk Driving has helped craft many of our laws around driving while intoxicated. Habitat for Humanity works on affordable housing through state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. Concerned moms have created grass-roots nonprofits to tackle issues from food labeling to cleanup at the Love Canal.
In 2019, nonprofits serving people with IDD are lobbying for legislation around important issues such as eliminating the 10-to-15 year waiting list for residential services, helping reimbursement rates keep up with inflation and ensuring that people who have legal guardians are assured basic rights. In doing so, we are carrying on an important tradition of nonprofit advocacy.
Tara Kiene is president and CEO of Community Connections Inc.