Excerpts from Preserving disability civil rights: a step-by-step guide to taking action

This excerpt from the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund (located in Berkeley, California) civil rights action manual is concerned with the need to make the public aware of your issue and the different ways in which this can be done.

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This is the manual you have always wanted to consult. Have a look at the table of contents to whet your appetite:

Fundraising, putting on an event, writing proposals, talking to lenders and donors, media/public relations, press release, letters to the editor, bringing television to your event, getting an interview in the media, politicking the politicians, community organizing, starting a small group, creating coalitions, educating the community, and much more.

Media public relations

If people are going too support your causes, they must know you exist. The quickest and most effective way to advertise your cause is by using the media. Could you imagine the manufacturer of a new product putting it out on the market without publicity? For the sake of editorial clarity, we are separating a discussion of media and its uses from the section in this manual on community outreach. In the real world, no such distinction can be made. If a supporter of your cause appears on television, they are going into people's living rooms. It's different than if s/he were there in the flesh, but media is community outreach, and in the modern world of satellites that outreach is global.

The press release.

The purpose is:

  • to announce an upcoming event and invite the press to cover it.
  • to issue a statement or take a stand on a news development or issue
  • to provide background information or to supplement late-breaking news.

Form of a press release. Neatness counts. Editors and reporters are bombarded with press releases, and a simple method of elimination is to discard those that are sloppy and unprofessional. No typos, no misspellings or crossouts.

Content. Every young reporter is taught that in preparing their story they must include the five w's: who, what, where, when, why. You must also include then in your press release.

The lead paragraph, your first, should answer as many of the five w's as possible without sounding awkward. If you don't answer at least two of the five, your press release will most likely end up in the trashbasket. All five w's have to be answered by the end of the second paragraph.

Make your most important points and write in a quotable way. Your lead should convince the editors to cover your story. You must hook them in.

Press releases can be longer than one typed double-spaced page, but follow the inverted pyramid rule of diminishing importance. Give all your important information, especially what is newsy and quotable, on the first page. Keep it lively. Succeeding pages should be used for background detail.
If you refer to individuals in your press release, give their titles, and how to get in touch with them if you want the media to get in touch with them.

Your closing paragraph should be a succinct statement of the meaning and purposes of your cause.


Press releases should neither be mailed too early nor too late. If you send it in too early, it will be forgotten, and if you send it in too late, the results are obvious. Releases should arrive three to five days before an event.

Follow-up phone calls

Two days before the event, call the person to whom you sent the press release. Update your press release, adding any new information that would be of interest. Don't browbeat reporters or editors; give them the impression you have a solid story which will make good copy. Call again the morning of the event, but be very brief.

To whom do you send press releases? Find out who has been covering similar stories in the past. Send them a press release. Work at developing a friendly first-name relationship with this individual. Never send a release to more than one person at the same newspaper.

Some cities have media guides, often published by the local public relations association, that tell you what publications exist and who are the editors, reporters and feature writers. You can get information about this guide by calling a local public relations association or a local public relations firm.


More people learn about the world through watching television than reading newspapers. What television likes to show. Television news people would rather cover a fire than a press conference. Have you ever noticed how much of the six o'clock news is devoted to fires, explosions, oil spills and other natural and human-created catastrophes? All of these events have one thing in common: they are visually interesting. When you are planning an event and intending to invite the television cameras, ask yourself if the event will be exciting to look at, not simply to hear or read about.

Making it visual. If you are organizing a public hearing on the Justice Department's proposed guideline changes you might do the following:

Organize it like a court room with judges, witnesses, questioners, lawyers. Television loves courtroom dramas.

Think about selecting a provocative place for your hearing, possibly as near the Department of Justice as you can get.

Have the "jury" in the hearing arrive together for dramatic impact, and announce each member separately with some lively bit of biography.

If you have invited some key public officials to attend, and they have failed to show up, have a prominent empty chair with the person's name on it. Consider putting a stuffed mannequin in the chair, dressed as a clown.

How should people be dressed? Depending on what you have to say and your sense of humor, dress will vary, but do not be drab. Do not wear white shirts for television cameras.

Have your event come to a dramatic conclusion, let a "verdict" be passed and have interesting-looking people announce both the verdict and what will result from it. Let the TV people know in advance when the "verdict" will be announced.

Bringing television to your event

The press release, the follow-up phone call, the Daybook should all be employed. Your media committee should cultivate relationships with television journalists, editors, public service time editors and station managers. Do not neglect non-English speaking television and radio, or the overseas media.

The television press release should put a special emphasis on describing activities in an evocative and exciting way. Suggest that your event will present opportunities for lively television footage. Remember, you are competing with fires.

Street theater (agitprop)

Street theater which is performed in advocacy of your cause is great fun. Fun for the performers and the onlookers. It's a free show. Street plays are brief, 3-5 minutes, involving anywhere from one to six people or a few more. Dialogue is simple and brief; sometimes it is shouted. Costumes are colorful, faces can be painted and most of the message is conveyed through movement, facial expressions, mime and various exaggerated forms. The best street theater makes one point. You do not need a professional playwright or performers. Any group of people who like to have a good time can get together and develop a street play.

Street plays present good opportunities to give out leaflets, sell buttons, distribute bumperstickers and raise money. Take along someone just for fundraising.

Legislative access--politicking

Very few politicians would risk having the reputation of being rude and mean to disabled citizens. Use that to your advantage.Read the Paper. A good way to find out what politicians are doing on the city, county, state and federal level, is by reading the newspapers, including features, columns, editorials and letters to the editor. Find out what battles are going on in the various legislatures, what issues are being debated, what bills are being presented, what amendments are being offered. What is being said on the floors of assemblies, and in the cloakrooms? What individual seems most likely to be sympathetic to your cause?

You will find the press coverage insufficient. Use your personal ties--and you should develop these--with reporters and editors to fill in the gaps. Learn to trade information with them.

Know your representatives

When planning an approach to an elected official, learn something about them. Read the press, the weekly magazines, obtain from their office any public position papers they have issued on relevant material, consult the relevant congressional and legislative records. Know their voting record and the legislation they have sponsored or actively opposed. Go to the library, consult the various "Who's Who" volumes for any reference to your official. If you are doing your research in depth, check the tax and property records of the city s/he lives in.

Need: Go to an elected official when you want support for your cause, when you want them to back or oppose something, or when you need personal aid in dealing with a government agency. But don't go too often or you will eventually be dismissed as a nuisance.

Timing: If you want an official to take a public position on an issue, either by speaking, voting or writing a letter, approach them at a time that is relevant. If you write a letter six months before the matter is coming up, your letter will be filed and forgotten. Pick a time in which the official you are contacting is likely to be thinking about what is on your mind, e.g., a time when s/he is determining how to vote on a pending piece of legislation, or when an issue has become a matter of public debate.

Gaining access - introducing yourself and your group

In order to meet an elected official:

  • Call their office and ask to speak to the administrative aide in charge of appointments. Explain who you are and why you want to meet the official. State what you are going to ask the official to do. If you are disabled, say so.
  • It will take a few days for contact to be made with the administrative aide in charge of appointments.
  • The administrative aide may set up a meeting between you and a staff member rather than between you and the official. Don't be put off, officials are totally dependent on their staff, and if you recruit a staff member to your cause, you have done a good day's work.
  • You may be told that an appointment is unnecessary, that your request should be put in the form of a letter and given due consideration. Make your own judgement as to whether this is true. If it is not, then keep insisting on a face-to-face meeting.
  • Connections help. They are not indispensable but they make things easier. Do you know any officials personally, or any staff people? Do you know anybody who knows politicians personally or is related to them--a contributor, a sympathetic reporter, a member of the clergy, a campaign worker? Have you written any letters to politicians and received answers? If you have already established contacts, take advantage of them. A friend or supporter could make the initial call and help set up the interview. You may be given a little more time and attention.

Politicking the politicians

Writing letters. The easiest, cheapest, and one of the most effective ways to communicate with public officials is by letter. You write to a politician when you want to obtain or send them information on legislation and issues, to make requests, to ask for personal help, to extend invitations, to express gratitude or criticism. Your letter must be:

  • Timely. Is the matter you are raising relevant to the official at the time you are raising it?
  • Precise. An official may receive between 100 and 1,000 letters in a week. If your letter is not clear, it will have no effect.
  • Factual. Your letter should include all relevant facts, and yet be to the point.
  • Specific. If you are writing about a particular bill, include the name of the bill and the bill number.
  • Clear. Present the official with a clear and concise argument either for or against a proposed action.

If you have ever met the public official you can personalize your letter, saying Dear Joe or Dear Betty. A personalized letter will get special attention in the office.

Don't send a pre-printed or form letter that hundreds of other people are going to copy and send to the same official. An obviously orchestrated campaign is not attractive. Orchestrate your campaign with subtlety. Don't use cliches.

Don't write about your problem. Write about what you want the official to do about your problem. Here is a successful example:

I have a disabled child. Here is a problem I am having (state it), and this is what I suggest you do (make a specific suggestion). I don't know anything about writing laws, but I do know that this is one way to solve this problem.

Face to face. When you meet with an official or a staff member, be very prepared. You are meeting busy people, individuals who think fast and are impressed by those who do likewise. When you talk with an official, you should:

  • Ask them to do something. Don't just tell them you have a problem. Suggest a creative solution and seek to enlist their support.
  • Be concise. You may only have a ten or fifteen minute interview. Don't read from prepared statements. You can consult notes, but be extemporaneous. Be prepared to answer questions. Think through in advance what the official or staff member may ask you. Don't get angry. Don't be intimidated. Don't be condescending. Be humorous when it is appropriate.
  • Bring along documentation, fact sheets surveys, newspaper clippings, petitions, photographs, whatever you think will back up your case. Leave these with the official for further study.
  • Be patient if the official does not show up for the appointment. (This may happen, since unexpected hearings are always being called and emergencies developing.) You may be given a staff member instead. If so treat the meeting with the same seriousness you would have accorded the official.
  • Be neatly dressed.
  • Be flexible. An official may be prepared to go only part of the way with you. They will always be balancing various demands. If partial support is all you get, don't be argumentative. Thank the official for what s/he is willing to do and state that you hope they will be able to do more in the future. Politics is the art of compromise and the possible.
  • Be alert. Politicians are smooth at public relations. They may smile a lot, give you "stokes", in an effort to co-opt you without really doing anything on your behalf. Develop strategies for not being taken in and yet not being rude. Be persistent. It is not what officials say but what they do that counts.
  • Follow up your face-to-face interview with a friendly letter, thanking the official for their time and support, if they have offered it. If no immediate support was offered, reiterate that you hope support will be given in the future.

Source: Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund, Preserving disability civil rights: a step-by-step guide to taking action.

Address: Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund, 2212 Sixth St, Berkeley, CA 94710, United States


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Foundation for Community Organization. Handbook for Community Organization. Durham, North Carolina: Foundation for Community Organization, 1969.

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