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Liz Weintraub’s Speech for ASAN Gala 2018

Hello, my name is Liz Weintraub.

Isn’t ASAN doing an awesome job?

Congratulations on being around for 12 years.

Before I begin my remarks, let me add my congratulations to all of tonight’s award winners.

When Julia and Zoe asked me to talk about leadership, I thought about how some people have told me how hard it is for them to speak up for themselves.

I immediately thought of one of my favorite childhood books “The Little Engine that Could”.

Has anyone read that book?  

In case you haven’t read or remember the book, let me remind you.

The happy little train who has toys and goodies for the boys and girls broke down, and they ask a lot of the train engines to help pull it.

One engine says, I can’t because I’m tired, and one engine says, I am too important to pull the train.

Then they found the little engine that could, who said, well okay, I am not strong and I’m not big and I’m not important, but I don’t want to let the toys, dolls and the clowns down.

I loved that book because of what the message is.

The message, to me, is self determination.

That you need to try, you need to be determined.

And the train – yes, the train was small, the train didn’t have a big powerful engine.

I can imagine the train felt really small about themself and that’s what people with disabilities feel all the time.

“Oh yeah, maybe I can do this… No I can’t, because I’m disabled.”

I don’t know about you, but I felt that way.

I was, just like that little blue engine, because when I first said “no” to my parents I was scared.  

I even thought that they wouldn’t love me anymore if I went against what they wanted…

I think, for me, it was hard, because for such a long time, my family and other professionals in my life told me that, they will always have my best interest at heart and why should I even try to speak up.

It wasn’t until 1974 that we as people with Intellectual Disabilities in the United States started speaking up for ourselves.

Eight self-advocates who were at a conference yelled, we want to be on the self- determination train as well.

It was really important because family members were speaking up for us, and yes, some families are wonderful, but who should be talking first? Us.

The self-advocates went back and started speaking up. As the little blue engine said, I think I can..I think I can, people with disabilities started to say the same thing…

Can we all practice saying “I think I can, I think I can”?

[audience chants with Liz: I think I can, I think I can]

And that’s how it began…and we haven’t stopped since.

I remember when I was first learning how to advocate for myself, I often depended on friends to help me to get my courage up to speak out to someone who I look up to…

Actually one of the main reasons, I joined a self-advocacy group, was because I wanted the support from others like me who also had disabilities, to learn how to say “NO” to my parents.

I figured that the members of the group might also be dealing with the same kinds of issues that I was dealing with, and guess what, they were.

When I get scared, I often think to myself, am I letting people down just like the little blue engine would have let the boys and girls down, if they didn’t try to get over the hill.

Part of a self-advocacy group is to get support from your friends. Other self-advocates believed in me, so I would be letting them down if I didn’t believe in myself.

Therefore, to me, this story is all about self- determination.

I tell myself, “I am determined to speak up because I don’t want to face the alternatives.

I don’t want anyone to keep me from riding on the freedom train.

I don’t want anyone to keep me from living in my community and being free.”

I don’t want go back to the time that I was in an institution or when my parents spoke for me.  

I am not afraid to say, even after people look up to me as a leader, I still get scared at times, and just want to sit in the middle of the train and let other people drive.

The reason why I want to sit in the middle of the train is, I am afraid that, people will get angry or yell at me.

When that happens, I take a deep breath and be gentle with myself, and say, I need encouragement, and I need to depend on family and friends.

If you get afraid or scared, please don’t beat up on yourself, because even the little blue engine needed encouragement.

In the story, the little blue engine, asked other trains to help them to get over the mountain.

The other trains wouldn’t bother.

All of the trains just had excuses why they couldn’t help.

Just like people don’t want to help people with disabilities speak up for ourselves.

One of the real dangers of being on the freedom train is knowing what seat you have.

When you want people on the train, people without disabilities will often say, “oh, be on the train.”

Once you get on the train, you might think that someone put you at the front of the train, but actually they put you in the back.

This is what is called treating someone like a token.

Sometimes we use a token to get on the train — like a subway token.

But it’s not enough to just be ON the train, we want to DRIVE the train.

And that’s why a token isn’t enough.

I’m tired of just being on the train. I want to DRIVE.

When I am treated like a token, I feel sad and angry because I feel like I am taking up a seat on the train, but what’s the purpose of me being there?

I get also angry because to me, they just want me because it looks good to have me on the staff or on the board.

Well to me, an organization should be ashamed of them self when you treat me like that.

I don’t know about you, but when I get a seat on the self- determination train, I want to know that I am really contributing to the organization or the mission.

I don’t want people to work with me because I am just Liz Weintraub with an intellectual disability.

As a Senior Advocacy Specialist, I am the host of a YouTube show,

I am good at lobbying on key issues and I am great at promoting my organization.

I play a major leadership role on our Policy Team.

Now that we have talked about tokenism.

Let’s talk about how disability rights organizations can put people with disabilities TRULY at the front of the train, without treating them like a token.

Being at the front of the train means that I am involved in ALL the decisions that relate to my job.

It means that the organization and people we work with respect me as an expert.

You need to understand that WE can do things.

It might not be the same way that you do things, but we can do things if you give us the time, and the tools, the encouragement.

We can tell and we can smell if you are treating us like a token.

An example of being at the front of the train is that Julia is the executive director of ASAN.

She is involved in making all the decisions for the organization.

In my job, I am also in the front of the train.

I am in charge of MY YouTube show, Tuesdays With Liz, where I am involved in making the decisions of the show.

I do real work.

I am not just playing a game.

We need to make sure that all disability organizations have people with disabilities in major leadership roles.

I mean people with disabilities that have never gone to college.

I mean people who have been told their whole lives that they can’t have a professional job.

I mean people who might have significant communication difficulties.

Put me at the front of the train, but you can’t stop with me.

Some of my friends with intellectual disabilities have never been given the chance to run an organization, and they would like to be at the front of the train too.

Think outside the box about leadership roles.

If the job description of an executive director is the way that it has always been, it might not include me.

It might not include my friends.

Let us ALL be at the front of the train.

Self advocacy doesn’t have to be about politics, but for me, it is.

This year, I had the honor of being a fellow in Senator Casey’s office.

I did real work.

But we shouldn’t just be fellows – we should be staff for Members of Congress.

We should  also run to be elected officials or a Member of Congress ourselves.

In Congress, some of you might know, there’s a train that goes between offices and the Capitol building.

But the train is only for Members of Congress and their staff.

Let’s hurry up and get a seat on that train.

I know it can be hard and scary, but I believe, now that it’s almost 2019, it’s time to take charge and be at the front of the train.

Going back to the story, I am almost positive that the little blue engine was scared to go over the mountain, but with determination, they did it, so that the boys and girls wouldn’t be let down.

Remember, the message of the story is self-determination.

Just like the engine, self-advocates got the message. When will you?

I have every confidence that by 2020, that we as people with disabilities will be driving the train.  

We just all need to say… “I think I CAN”

(audience chants with Liz, “I think I can, I think I can”)

…and it shall happen.

Thank you again for the honor of being your keynote speaker and again congratulations to ASAN for being around for 12 years.

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