NIB’s Advocates for Leadership and Employment program prepares high-potential employees who are blind to advocate for themselves, their agencies, and the greater community.

Sophia McCall at her computer

NIB Advocates for Leadership and Employment participate in intensive training during the annual the public policy conference, but the training doesn’t stop when the conference ends, explains NIB Public Policy Vice President Rick Webster. His team holds quarterly conference calls with the Advocates that provide public policy updates, Q&A sessions, and time for shout-outs about their activities.

The program creates a peer group for Advocates new to the program and those who have been with it for years. Advocates are encouraged to reach out to the public policy team and each other for information or advice. Public Policy Specialist Vivian Fridas, who manages the Advocates program, recently added a quarterly newsletter for the group. “It allows us to go more in-depth on public policy issues,” she says, “and helps keep information flowing in all directions.”

As the training continues, so does the advocacy. During the summer, Advocates work with staff members from legislators’ offices to schedule tours of their facilities or to meet in legislators’ district offices during the August recess. Sophia McCall, who joined the Advocates program in 2020 representing Lighthouse Central Florida in Orlando, remembers the excitement of scheduling and leading her first August recess visit in 2021.

Before the recess, McCall visited her representative’s website and sent an email inviting her to tour the Lighthouse facility. “A staffer got back to me fairly quickly and asked me if I had any dates available,” she says. “It was big!”

In August, McCall led U.S. Representative Val Demings on a tour of the agency. Demings was able to meet employees who are blind or visually impaired and see the variety of work they do. “These tours are so important,” says McCall. “It really helps people become aware of our work at the agency.”

Since then, McCall has been involved with White Cane Day at the agency and is increasingly being invited to speak at local churches. She credits the training she received through the Advocates program with helping her become a better public speaker and getting more involved in her local community.

Advocating for Everyone

Alicia Howerton with representative

Advocates provide public policy updates at their agencies and also reach out to other community stakeholders to establish personal relationships and educate them about their agency’s mission.

Alicia Howerton, who joined Cleveland Sight Center in 2010, works to cultivate and maintain key agency relationships as manager of strategic partnerships. Howerton caught the public policy advocacy bug in 2017 when she had a chance to go to the state capitol with her CEO and a coalition of other NIB associated agencies in Ohio to speak with legislators about the need for insurance coverage for white canes.

“Legislators thought white canes were used for identification purposes,” recalls Howerton. “I have used a white cane for 20-plus years. I explained that it is a navigation device. I told them that without it, I couldn’t safely cross the street.”

Although the legislature did not enact a law covering the issue, in 2019, the state Medicaid department became the first in the U.S. to amend its rule for ambulation aides such as canes, crutches, and walkers to include white canes as durable medical equipment — a move that benefits people who are blind across Ohio.

“It was because of that experience that I applied to the Advocates program,” says Howerton. “I wanted to do more. The Advocates program not only solidified for me everything that I had learned up to that point, but it also helped me feel more comfortable in sharing my story and my agency’s story.” Since joining the program, Howerton has used her skills to advocate in her community and joined several advisory boards for people with disabilities.

Personal Growth

The Advocates for Leadership and Employment program has been a success not just for NIB, its associated agencies, and local communities, notes Fridas. Participants in the program do more than offer a unified message and increase awareness of NIB and associated agencies on Capitol Hill, and at the state and local level: Advocates embark on a journey of significant personal growth, improving their soft skills and becoming more involved in their communities as champions for their peers, their agencies, and themselves.

Manuel Zavala, who joined the West Texas Lighthouse for the Blind in San Angelo, Texas, in 2008 after losing his eyesight to diabetes, is an example of the personal growth many Advocates experience.

Despite being rather shy by nature, Zavala says “I suppose I’ve always been an advocate here at the agency — conducting fundraisers, helping organize holiday parties, that sort of thing. When my CEO asked me if I’d be interested in becoming an Advocate, I said I definitely was.”

Although the training was very intimidating at first, Zavala says the program has helped him build confidence, leading him to become the agency’s tour guide. He also credits the Advocates program with inspiring him to go back to school to not only earn his high school diploma, but to start taking college-level classes to earn a degree in business administration.

As for Capitol Hill visits, Zavala admits that the first few meetings were pretty overwhelming, but over time, he’s come to enjoy them. When the Lighthouse moved to a new location, it was Zavala who issued the invitation and arranged for U.S. Representative August Pfluger to tour the facility. Unbeknownst to him, others at the agency also made arrangements with Congressman Pfluger — to have him present the West Texas Lighthouse employee of the year award to Zavala during the visit.

The Payoff

“To see our Advocates personal growth through involvement with the program is amazing,” says Lynch. “They become more confident and continue to grow their skills. And the impact they’ve had in their communities and on Capitol Hill is incredible.”

It is also directly in line with the mission of NIB and NIB associated agencies, he notes. “NIB’s mission is all about supporting the economic independence of people who are blind. The Advocates program is right at the top of achieving that independence. It’s a natural — and vital — connection to the mission.”

In the next 10 years, Lynch would like triple or even quadruple the number of Advocates. “We want to have Advocates in every congressional district where our agencies have a presence.”

Webster agrees that growth is vital to the program’s continued success. “To grow the program, we have to expand our influence across more congressional districts. To do this, our agencies need to think more broadly — to have an Advocate at every Base Supply Center, for example, so we can cover more of the nation.” As representation grows, Webster also wants to continue to deepen the Advocates skills sets. “That way, they have the tools to amplify their own voices.”