NH-ME LEND Spring Kickoff Event Helps Prepare Trainees for Disability Policy Seminar

March 10, 2022

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 NH-ME LEND Program hosted a two-state panel discussion and a keynote speaker as part of their virtual Spring Semester Kick Off Event, Organizing to Influence Your State’s Policy. The session was designed to help prepare NH and ME trainees to participate in the annual Disability Policy Seminar in Washington, DC on March 28-30, 2022.

The six panelists from New Hampshire and Maine included two state legislators, two parent advocates, and two individuals with disabilities who have helped to enact change in their state’s disability policies. The panelists generated some robust discussions with trainees 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 Maine State Senator Catherine Breen (D-Cumberland). “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.”

Dr. Alan Cobo-Lewis, Maine UCEDD 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.”

Highlighting the importance of educating legislators, panelist Kelly Ehrhart, President of People First of New Hampshire noted, “The Medicaid adult dental benefit was a need for the [New Hampshire] community and if the legislators weren’t made aware of this issue, there never would have been a bill passed to address that need.” 

Parent advocate and keynote speaker Laura Sweet shared her experience of raising her daughter, Jane, whose undiagnosed congenital cytomegalovirus infection at birth caused total hearing loss during her first year of life. Sweet described her ongoing efforts, in partnership with Senator Breen, to pass state legislation to increase newborn screening for CMV.    

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.”


Photo credits:

Joe and Laura Sweet at the Maine State House courtesy of Laura Sweet.
Headshots of the panel courtesy of the panelists. Used with permission.



Photo 1 caption: Joe and Laura Sweet in front of the Maine State House

Photo 1 alt text:  A tall white man wearing glasses and a black winter coat standing outside next to a white woman wearing a brown winter coat in front of a gray and white building with a large copper dome.

Photo 2 caption: Top left: Catherine Breen–ME State Senator; Top right: Kelly Ehrhart–President of People First of 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 2 alt text: Tiled black and white headshots of the 6 panelists: 4 women and 2 men. The headshot tiles are arranged in two vertical columns with 2 tiles across and 3 tiles down.