As professionals and advocates, we go to so many conferences they can sometimes feel like a chore. But if we take a second to really listen and engage and quit taking so many notes we might just learn something.

When at the most recent Connect for Success conference, I did just that. The gathering was full of great speakers.

I rolled away with some takeaways that I had to share:

Data vs Stories

We are a data driven society. Coming from graduate school, I understand data is essential! This is how we justify the need for services, obtain funding, and conduct program evaluations. However, do we know when to use personal stories paired with data? Numbers are not enough! Sharing our personal stories is how we connect with people. Families need to know that they can overcome an obstacle and often they need examples, not data. We all have a story to share! Data may drive services, but stories change lives. Both are equally important!

Creating Accessible Maps

Building intuitive maps to guide families through supports and services is essential. We use maps when driving, but think about it – would a map of Alaska help if you were lost in Florida? Absolutely not!

We must remember to ask the person about what they are looking for in their journey and destination! Let’s create maps for different ages, disabilities, and cultures! A simple guidebook to IEPs will not answer all of the questions that come up when educating students with disabilities! But it can help parents and educators when they are writing new ones.

Emotions, In or Out?

A ton of trainings encourage people to advocate for themselves or their children without emotions. Supporters of this strategy argue it allows people to state the facts, to support their beliefs and communicate effectively. But, should emotions be removed from the equation completely? Aren’t the emotions what drive a person to become an advocate? Emotions should absolutely be used to get our point across. Parents advocating for their child’s education are often emotional because school is such a critical component in how it shapes our entire lives. When used affectively, our emotions can help strengthen our arguments and ignite the passion in others.


One of the speakers tapped into Ted Talks to reinforce the importance of leadership. The talk that stood out for me the most focused on lollipops of all things. The speaker told a story about how he was handing out lollipops on a college campus. Years later of his lollipop recipients said that simple gesture changed her entire trajectory on life. She was waiting in line to register for classes and was about to tell her parents she didn’t want to go to school that year. Then, suddenly a stranger gave a lollipop to a guy standing next to her, and told that guy to give her the lollipop. The speaker didn’t remember any of this. But that young woman contacted him years later and said not only did she end up going to college, but she’s since graduated. She later married that guy that handed her the lollipop and invited the speaker to the wedding. A simple act of kindness made a huge impact on at least two lives that day.

As a disability advocate, I rarely see instant results. But I need to remind myself that lives are being changed through the work I am doing with the families.

When attending a conference for work or personally, I encourage you to enter the atmosphere with the attitude of a learner. I have been working as a disability advocate for over ten years, and I am still rolling away with new ideas to place in my toolkit.

Hope to see you at the next conference!

***ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela West earned a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her passion for disability advocacy stems from advocating for her own rights as a young woman with cerebral palsy.***Angela West Author Pic






















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