Self-advocates stand up for their rights

My name is Connie Lewis. I have been an active part of the Missoula Valley People First Aktion Club since 1998. Some of my friends told me about People First and the self-advocacy projects that they work on. It sounded interesting, so I joined. 

I have enjoyed getting together and finding new friends. I have always been a bit shy, and People First has helped me to open up more. 
Connie Lewis
I was the chapter treasurer for several years. A few years ago I decided to try something new, so I ran for vice-president. I am now serving as the chapter president. Jason Billehus is the vice president, Janice Salamon is the secretary, Tracy Riggs is the treasurer and Keough Duffy is the sergeant-at-arms.
I have also served as a senator and am serving as secretary for the senate now. I liked going to the senate meetings and learning how to organize meetings, work on projects and how to be a self-advocate. 

As a self-advocate I have learned that I am a person who can stand up for my rights and other people’s rights. The Missoula chapter has been working together with other chapters on getting rid of the R-word and the marriage penalty in Social Security. People First wants to make it so that people with disabilities can get married without losing their Social Security Insurance (SSI) benefits. 

The R-word is a word that medical people used for years. We need to let others know that it is a word that offends people who have disabilities. They are saying that anyone with a disability is slow. That is not true!

I work as an office assistant at the Rural Institute on Disabilities. I help people who have disabilities find other resources to improve their lives. I also enjoy singing in the VSA Choir. I also serve on the VSA board. I started going to dance classes recently. I am a Lady Griz basketball fan. I love to watch the plays at the Missoula Children’s Theatre. I like to go out to eat and to spend time with friends. 

The Missoula Valley People First/Aktion Club has 16 members. Andrea Dahl has been the adviser since 2006. The chapter continues to work on issues such as getting rid of the marriage penalty part of SSI benefits and banning the R-word. In 2005 our chapter was able to go watch a Montana Supreme Court hearing concerning a person who wanted to get out of a state institution for people with developmental disabilities. 

There is no longer an institution in eastern Montana, and the Montana Developmental Center at Boulder has reduced its number of residents as a result. This is a good example of what a self-advocate stands for. As a self-advocate, I believe that a person can stand up for her rights and the rights of others. 

Our chapter likes to volunteer to help in our community. We help with Kiwanis Club activities such as the Annual Pancake Breakfast. The Kiwanis members always tell us that they would not be able to do it without our help! We also help with projects like Walk-a-thons to raise money for projects to help children in other countries. During the holiday season our chapter helps out needy families with meals and gifts. 

People First of Montana aims to enhance the quality of life for people with disabilities. It is a network of local self-advocacy groups formed to:
  • Assist people with disabilities to speak up for themselves and make their own decisions
  • Promote equality for people with disabilities by promoting the People First concept of people first, disability second
  • Provide peer support
  • Work together locally and statewide to remove barriers to people with disabilities in housing, transportation, employment and other areas of life
  • Educate the public and People First members about the rights, abilities and strengths of people with disabilities.

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