Storytelling: A Disability Advocate's Best Friend
Freelance journalist Elizabeth Heideman never realized how big of an impact storytelling would have not just in her career, but in her life as a disability advocate. Here she discusses the ways in which simple storytelling can move people into action.
By Elizabeth Heideman
My 8th grade English class once published a school newspaper that included a well-written essay by a classmate who was against our school’s uniform policy. She called on officials to ban uniforms and outlined her reasons why. My class was proud of our newspaper, and we handed copies out to everyone we could—but we were also a little nervous that we would get in trouble for speaking out against school policy.
A few days after our paper came out, our teacher called us over and said she wanted to talk about what we had written. We were shocked when she announced our paper had become the talk of the town. Even school administrators agreed that my classmate’s essay had raised some good points.
“This is what journalism does,” our teacher said. “This is what we want—to create a dialogue, to make people question the status quo. Never be afraid to make your voice heard.”
Fast forward 10 years later, and I’m still following my teacher’s advice. As young people with disabilities, it’s crucial to make sure our voices are heard. Growing up, your teachers, family and doctors will often try to decide what’s best for you, but never forget that you always have a say in what happens to you.
Just like the 8th grade essay arguing against school uniforms, it can be intimidating to speak out against people who are seemingly “in charge.” This is where the power of writing comes into play.
Through journalism, I’ve found that it’s easier to advocate both for myself, but also for people with disabilities everywhere. The written word can elevate our voices from mere whispers to booming calls for change. Our words can teach others, start movements and even inspire new, better laws that affect all of us.
If you love storytelling, big ideas and want to change the world, consider a career in journalism or writing. If you’re just starting out or still in school, here are the three most helpful tips I know for becoming a writer:
1. Start a blog and find an audience. Take all of your wackiest ideas and write about them in a public place online. Don’t be afraid to turn heads or cause people to disagree with you. Never shy away from writing just because you think you’re too young or don’t know enough.
2. Read like your life depends on it. Reading is truly the only way to become a great writer. Study your favorite magazine articles and practice matching their styles. If there’s a magazine or website you would kill to write for someday, read it as often as you can and constantly think of stories you yourself could write that would be a perfect fit for the publication.
3. Be the expert you already are! If you’re interested in writing about disability issues, remember that you’re already the best possible person to write about them. If you’re tackling a disability-related law or policy, don’t shy away from including your own personal experience with it. Both editors and readers want to hear from real people who are affected by the topics they cover.
Elizabeth Heideman is a New Orleans journalist who has written about disability rights, social justice, and culture for the Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and Salon.com. Follow her on twitter @Eliza_Heidi.
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