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Something for Everyone at "My Voice Matters" 2018 FL SAND Conference

I am excited to be writing a recap of the annual conference of Florida Self-Advocates Network’D, or FL SAND. This year 125 self-advocates and their supporters convened at The Florida Hotel and Conference Center in Orlando, February 4-6, for the 6th annual FL SAND Conference, “My Voice Matters.”

It was my first time attending the conference and although I’ve been to many conferences before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The registration process was very easy, and everyone was extremely friendly. The conference had a wide variety of vendors with valuable information available to the participants. It was exciting to see so many self-advocates come together from around the state to participate in such an important event. I was able to attend two of the break out sessions. They had equally important information, and I even learned something from each presenter.

Presenters from the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, Disability Rights Florida, and ABLE United spoke about work incentives available to beneficiaries of Social Security. Their presentation was called “Well, I Heard…Bustin’ Myths and Rumors About Employment, Benefits, and Financial Independence.” This discussion highlighted effects work has on benefits and the various incentives available to minimize disruptions to Medicaid. Natalie Alden with Disability Rights Florida started out the session by reminding self-advocates that they will always have more money in their pockets when they are working. John Finch, the director of ABLE United was also part of the panel. He added useful information on how beneficiaries can maximize their savings using an ABLE account. He talked about what we could do with the money in our ABLE accounts to maximize our independence in daily life.

In addition to equipping those listening with facts about the relationship between employment and benefits, a key goal of the session was to encourage FL SAND members to be thought leaders among their peers on these topics to help steer others in the direction of getting the best and most accurate information about employment and benefits.

Michael Daniels, the executive director of the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology (FAAST) led an eye-opening discussion on communicating with our legislators in the group’s D-D-Day“Prep” Rally Saturday morning. During this presentation Michael provided information to help prepare those going to Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day at the Florida State Capitol February 14, particularly how to effectively convey messages related to FL SAND’s three legislative priorities for 2018. These issues need the attention of legislation to improve the quality of life of Floridians with disabilities. There were two points highlighted in his presentation that were most interesting and stood out to me. They were having an effective discussion with your legislators by conveying how the issue affects you personally and writing a thank you note after your meeting.

After Michael’s talk, FL SAND members wrote notes to legislators on postcards that contained key messages related to their legislative priorities. The FL SAND delegation delivered the postcards to legislators at DD Day last week.

Other highlights of the conference included:

  • A preconference symposium sponsored by the Florida Consortium of Inclusive Higher Education (FCIHE). FL SAND members delivered the keynote address at FCIHE’s Hartwick Symposium Series: Self-Advocates, Friday morning, February 2, and many FCIHE members joined the FL SAND conference kick-off event Friday evening. FL SAND’s Arizona Jenkins from the New Horizons self-advocacy group in Tampa delivered a break-out session on healthy living at the symposium.

  • A keynote address by self-advocate business owner Yessenia Leyva from South Florida. Yessenia inspired FL SAND members to reach for their dreams and not let misperceptions about disabilities hold them back.

  • Break-out sessions Saturday afternoon on topics for experienced self-advocates and those just starting out. In addition to the super-session on employment and financial independence mentioned above, Disability Rights Florida’s Paula Roberts and self-advocate Michael Lincoln co-presented “How to Be an Efficient Self-Advocate,” followed by self-advocate Ashley Wolfe’s introduction to Florida’s Explore Work training in a Self-Advocacy 101 Super-Session.

  • Regional round table discussions on transportation, grassroots advocacy projects, group recruitment, and mentoring emerging leaders. Self-advocates were able to brainstorm and share what’s working (and/or not working) in their communities.

  • Local group annual reports and FL SAND’s annual meeting of general membership on Sunday morning.

  • A planning session to discuss FL SAND's sustainability and independence.

In conclusion, I thought it was a fantastic conference and, I’m already looking forward to next year. People could make new connections, renew old ones, and sharpen their self-advocacy skills all in one weekend. It was also a great resource to learn something new, stay current on the issues everyone is facing, and find out how we can help each other effectively reach our collective and personal goals while having some fun too.

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