#HandsOff is a series on The Arc Blog. Each month, we feature a story from individuals and families across The Arc’s network about how some of today’s key policy issues impact their day to day lives.

By: Peter Contos

Peter ContosAs my Paul Marchand Policy Internship at The Arc’s national office in Washington, DC comes to a close, I want to reflect on the importance of advocacy.

Advocacy has always been an important part of my life. My brother and I were raised to try and understand life from various perspectives, and through this I gained an appreciation for people coming from all walks of life. My mother is a speech language pathologist, and many of her students have disabilities. It was through connecting with her students, along with supporting a family member with autism, where I found my calling in disability advocacy.

I was incredibly lucky to attend public schools that were relatively inclusive. My high school offers a class which pairs students from the general and special education curriculums, in subjects like cooking and art. I was fortunate enough to be in the class my senior year, and the relationships that blossomed throughout were very important to me. That class represents one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable moments of my academic career.

Throughout high school, I was also a part of the Miracle League, a baseball league accessible to kids and young adults with a range of disabilities. The enthusiasm and joy that the game brought to players, volunteers, parents, and fans was undeniable, and it was in those moments where I knew advocacy was the right path for me.

Through volunteering with The Arc of Northwest Wayne County (MI) for the past six years, I have attended the Disability Policy Seminar (DPS). DPS is an incredible opportunity for self-advocates and allies to come together to learn more about important policy issues, and the advocacy we can use to support key programs. This year’s DPS featured a few sessions that really empowered me to continue my advocacy work. In the opening general session, we heard from Rebecca Cokley from the Center for America Progress, and Mike Oxford from ADAPT, both of whom have extensive experience as advocates. The personal stories they told were incredibly powerful, and through them, I learned about the tools they use to communicate their priorities. I also attended the Update on Employment Policy session, where we heard from a representative from the Department of Labor and a key Senate staff member, Michael Gamel-McCormick, about the work they are doing to make sure there are enough incentives and training available for employers to hire people with disabilities.

My favorite part of DPS every year is the Hill visits. This year, I was able to meet with three Congressional offices. Using a combination of statistics and personal stories, the group that I attended with effectively advocated for a variety of programs, including Money Follows the Person, but also to protect vital programs like Medicaid and Social Security, along with continuing to promote equity in educational opportunity.

I’ve continued my advocacy through action post-DPS by attending a rally on Capitol Hill opposing cuts and restructuring of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). This rally was well attended by disability advocates and coalition organizations, and it was an opportunity to listen to stories about the importance of SNAP — including several by Members of Congress sharing their personal experiences with the program.

I will be graduating from college in June, and I look forward to continuing my advocacy fight wherever I end up. I plan to use the knowledge and tools that I’ve gained since moving to DC to mobilize the communities I am a part of in my future.

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