Breen and Millett Help NH-ME LEND Trainees Prepare for Disability Policy Seminar

Policy work is really problem-solving; always trying to figure out where we can find agreement on what government’s job is.

Maine State Senator Catherine Breen (D-Cumberland)

In late January, the New Hampshire-Maine Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (NH-ME LEND) Program hosted a two-state panel discussion as part of their virtual Spring Kick Off Event, Organizing to Influence Your State’s Policy.

A tiled layout of square black and white headshots of 4 women and 2 men; 2 rows across and 3 rows down.Maine state legislators Senator Catherine Breen (D-Cumberland) and Representative Sawin Millett (R-Waterford) were joined on the panel by an individual with a disability and a parent advocate from each state. The panelists generated some robust discussions about the influence of people with disabilities and family members on policy, building coalitions, educating legislators, and responding to failures and setbacks.

“Policy work is really problem-solving; always trying to figure out where we can find agreement on what government’s job is,” said Senator Breen. “When I boil down all of the different debates I’ve had over the years about policies or bills or budgets, they all come down to one thing: do people agree what the job of government is? That’s where you find the widest disparities and opportunity for agreement.”

NH-ME LEND is a federally funded graduate-level interdisciplinary leadership training program that prepares students, family members and professionals to assume leadership roles in the field of neurodevelopmental disabilities. Program partners include the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability, the University of Maine Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies (CCIDS), and the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Breen and Representative Millett encouraged the NH-ME LEND trainees to build relationships with the people who represent them; especially in Maine, where consecutive term limits are in effect. “I would suggest that people not underestimate the direct contact with your local legislator,” said Millett. “We don’t all get a lot of testimony or contact from constituents and it makes more sense to have that conversation with your local representative or senator first.”

Dr. Alan Cobo-Lewis, CCIDS Director and NH-ME LEND Program Co-Director, served as the panel moderator. He is the parent of two adult children, one of whom has a disability, and has been active in Maine disability policy for decades. “My experience in general, is that people doing [policy] work do it because they want to make positive change, but they may not know what positive change looks like for our community.”

The panel discussion was designed to help prepare NH and ME trainees to participate in the annual Disability Policy Seminar (DPS) in Washington, DC on March 28-30, 2022. The DPS is a three-day federal legislative conference that provides trainees with the opportunity to network, learn about disability policy, and meet with their congressional delegations.

In her closing comments, Senator Breen encouraged trainees not to be deterred by failure: enacting meaningful policy change sometimes requires years of sustained attention. “If a bill fails this session,” said Breen, “build a coalition, build a group of people that includes all of the different stakeholders around that issue. You have research that backs up what you’re trying to do. You have experts in the field, who are not only national, but local. Models from other states or national expertise can go both ways, so you have to make sure you have some homegrown expertise and homegrown credibility.”

Caption for the tiled headshots: Top left: Cathy Breen–ME State Senator; Top right: Kelly Ehrhart–President of People First New Hampshire; Middle left: Karen Blake–Director of Public Policy and Advocacy/Community Support Network, Inc.; Middle right: Laura Sweet– parent advocate; Bottom left: Thomas Minch–Civil Rights Advocate, Deaf Services, Disability Rights Maine; Bottom right: Sawin Millett–ME State Representative.

Photo credits:
Zoom screenshot courtesy of the NH-ME LEND Program.
Headshots of the panel courtesy of the panelists. Used with permission.