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At Arc Human Services, Advocacy Means Helping People Help Themselves
By Nancy Kennedy

Everybody needs an advocate: someone who has your back and is looking out for your best interests, especially at times when you are vulnerable. An advocate supports you, speaks up for you, is loyal to you and helps you when you need help. An advocate can make a significant difference when you are facing one of life’s transitions – an experience that confronts everyone at some point. For persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, transitions can be especially challenging and advocacy is key to their successful outcomes. At Arc Human Services in Washington County, an innovative non-profit agency that serves 500 participants and their families across eight Western Pennsylvania counties, advocacy is a cornerstone of the mission, elevated to an art, which facilitates the learning, growth and quality of life of participants of all ages.

At Arc, advocacy is a multi-layered concept: advocacy for others, self-advocacy and advocacy for system change are all essential components of Arc’s program. Darrilyn McCrerey, director of advocacy, explains: “Arc Human Services is a chapter of Arc of Pennsylvania and Arc USA, and we promote the human rights of our participants through programs and services. At Arc, advocacy means getting out there and helping families and individuals navigate the systems and connect with resources in the community. People of all abilities should be able to participate fully in their communities, and that means working, socializing, enjoying recreational opportunities and volunteering. It’s not easy – it’s tough out there, with complex systems and cultures that have to be confronted and navigated, and these systems are always changing. Getting a job means not only learning how to do the job, but also how to interact with co-workers, use public transportation and manage your time.”

 Darrilyn McCrerey and the Arc staff advocate by actively supporting the full inclusion of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities in community life, and they also work to improve community systems, like the schools, healthcare and transportation systems, to be more responsive to the needs of the participants. They teach self-advocacy skills to participants, empowering them to use their own voices to speak up for themselves and to be fully involved in the decision-making for their own lives. Arc participants meet directly with local legislators, including State Senator Camera Bartolotta, to bring their issues to their attention. The Arc self-advocates have brought concerns about transportation and accessibility in community establishments to her attention, using their own experiences and voices. Self-advocacy teaches participants self-awareness, problem solving and other skills that build confidence.

Another innovative way that Arc has accomplished this is through a program called “We Belong.” This is a photo voice project, Darrilyn says, in which participants took photographs of locations throughout the community that appealed to them or had significance for them. The photos were enlarged and accompanied by narratives, and were displayed throughout the community. The personal stories had an impact, raising awareness of how different people can contribute to the community. Arc Human Services even had the photos made into a 2018 calendar, with each month featuring a photo taken by a participant. The calendars can be purchased from the web site.

Darrilyn McCrerey has a degree in art therapy and has worked at Arc Human Services since 2005; she became the director of advocacy in 2017. She says that the agency is focused on awareness and acceptance, and that they are making inroads in dispelling misconceptions about persons with disabilities. “The business community has been mostly receptive. They may worry about whether the individuals will have the necessary skills, but our participants are well prepared. A person who is non-verbal will still have other ways to communicate.”

Arc Human Services helps clients learn skills, find meaningful work, develop relationships with others, and participate in their communities, workplaces, neighborhoods, churches and other organizations. Darrilyn McCrerey encourages people of all ages to reach out to Arc Human Services: “Please ask us if you need help. We have so much to offer, to help families, with a comprehensive range of services, information and resources. We believe that people of all abilities have the right to participate fully in their communities and we are here as your advocates in making that happen.”

For more information about Arc Human Services, visit www.aadvantageinc.org

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