One Person at a Time: Citizen Advocacy for People With Disabilities. A. J. Hildebrand. Newton, MA: Brookline Books, 2004.
People with disabilities in the latter part of the 20th century gained such opportunities as the right to a free and appropriate public education and individualized instruction as well as and laws prohibiting discrimination. One glowing aspect of life that cannot be legislated or regulated is securing and maintaining social relationships. This is especially true for people with disabilities: most have very few “friends” who do not have disabilities, and if one excludes relationships with staff members of agencies that provide services to this population, this situation is downright scurrilous. The lack of relationships of people with disabilities is well-documented in the field of social science and education.
One way to address this situation is through citizen advocacy. Defining this notion is not straightforward because the term can mean different things to different people. The roles of citizen advocates are also difficult to define—again, because different roles may be fulfilled based upon the needs and desires of people with disabilities (or anyone described as socially devalued and in need of an “advocate.” As Hildebrand explains, the context of advocate can also take the form of “a friend, ally, advisor, mentor, sponsor, spokesperson, protector, adoptive parent, guardian, and/or any number of other roles in a person's life” (p. 23).
This point is not to be missed: Everyone, at one time or another, needs to have an advocate. Regardless of successes or setbacks, people cannot live in a society without the need, perhaps not often, of some assistance that another person can bring. This notion and action separates civilized from uncivilized societies.
Hildebrand does a masterful job of organizing the book via theory and practice, practice and theory. One of the most poignant quotes in the book is when Hildebrand attempts to define what citizen advocacy is by stating, “Citizen Advocacy is more than taking someone out for an ice cream cone. Citizen Advocacy is a serious relationship-making enterprise for serious people dealing with serious issues in people's lives” (p. 31). To assist readers in understanding the theory of citizen advocacy, which is a bit esoteric because it is difficult to define, the author effectively uses anecdotal stories—real stories told by real people who are engaged in and are benefiting from citizen advocacy. This sort of “bibliotherapy” aids people with disabilities in need of advocacy and the advocates themselves.
The richness of the personal stories describing the relationships of the citizen advocates assists readers in understanding these concepts. Clearly, this is the strength of the book. In addition to the stories, Hildebrand explains in depth about the understanding and the foundations of citizen advocacy by dedicating various chapters of the book. In one chapter, for example, he elaborates on why there is a need for citizen advocates. This is where the term and the notion of “social devaluation” is introduced and defined/described in great detail. Also, although the book is principally for people with disabilities, as previously noted, persons who are socially devalued can also benefit. Societal norms define, more or less, who fits into this category. Social devaluation is not a place where people live or a situation they can leave from; it is more or less how one group of people feels about another group. Obviously, and unfortunately, this fits the disability population.
In a short, but necessary chapter on the history of citizen advocacy, Hildebrand provides a perspective of its beginning and an early definition. He discusses the need for establishing suitable advocacy matches and how to enhance the relationships. The essence of citizen advocacy is, in fact, a philosophy to expose misleading, but often accepted assumptions of how socially devalued people are envisioned.
Hildebrand offers a very insightful chapter on the common themes and lessons learned in citizen advocacy relationships. This discussion allows readers to meld the notion of theory and the notion of practice in a practical way.
Finally, there is a rather clever chapter on advice and suggestions for advocates. “Not reinventing the wheel” is a common administrative axiom used to admonish duplicating effort and wasting valuable resources on the research and development phase of a project. Anyone who is interested in establishing citizen advocacy can glean much from Hildebrand's text. The challenge is taking the first step by spending less time trying to define the concept less and more time for and with individuals who are devalued.