A Year with Disability Rights Montana

Disability Rights Washington, the sponsor of this website, is the protection and advocacy (P&A) system for Washington (state) residents.  There is a like entity in each U.S. state and territory. While we are independent of each other almost all of the P&A entities belong to the National Disability Rights Network.  “Around the P&A Network” will feature information from and/or about P&A entities in the other states and territories.  DRW welcomes content contributions from other P&A entities.

Montana: an epic place to be a VISTA. Not only is the accessibility to trails, lakes, rivers, and excellent breweries beyond comparison, Montana’s low population means politics are swayed by a mere thousand votes, and small non-profit organizations can have a tremendous impact on their community. Working for Disability Rights Montana, a dedicated group of 14 made up of attorneys, advocates, and support staff, has taught me so much about the statewide need for mental health services, for a developmental disabilities procedural overhaul, about the great providers and services that exist while constantly being underfunded, and much more.

Jillian Eacock AmeriCorp VISTA
Jillian Eacock

As I write this, ten months into my VISTA term with Disability Rights Montana, I cannot believe how much I have gained from the experience. I accepted this position after meeting with the vibrant and energetic Executive Director, Bernie. Her personality drew me in, but I had no idea what the organization really did or how deep of a connection I’d feel once I learned more. As with any civil rights based organization – the more you know, the more you are compelled to know more. I was able to connect with the mission of DRM in so many different ways based on the experiences I’ve had. I’ve been able to work on some really exciting projects that I know will have an outlasting impression on the future of this organization.

During my first few months here, I developed a redesign of the website, found at www.disabilityrightsmt.org. I created a modern design, which is easier to navigate, and applies better key search engine optimization phrases. A web designer took my graphic design and made it live in early 2013. I learned about legible, accessible fonts and appropriate color combinations.

Montana is unique in that the state has an overabundance of custom and charity license plates. I designed a license plate that represents our organization and brings awareness to our mission and presence in the state. Finding a unifying image that represents “disability,” “empowerment,” “justice,” and “equality” is no small feat – but we are very close to a design that pleases everyone and will hopefully be a best seller. Proceeds from each plate sold go directly back to DRM, and an additional donation comes to us annually with the renewal of the registration of the car.

Another impactful project was the creation and distribution of a weekly newsletter which detailed relevant bill hearings that would impact the disability community. One of our staff attorneys spent tireless hours at the State Capitol, and submitted her overview of the week to me each Friday, which I would reformat and enter into a customized e-newsletter template. Each issue got sent directly to over 60 people, put on our Facebook page, and forwarded on. Many people have congratulated our thorough, effective, and timely effort, and specifically credited our summaries with their enhanced understanding of the busy session.

Perhaps the most fun thing that I’m able to oversee is creation of a 2 day Special Education Symposium that will take place in the Flathead Valley in Northwestern Montana in October. This symposium will create more special education advocates by training many different groups of people. Attorneys will receive an overview of special education law. Teachers, parents, family members, and administrators will learn about the school’s responsibility to provide a free and appropriate education for each child. In creating this event, we hope to give attendees the tools to fix educational discrepancies before they develop into complex inadequacies, allowing children to get the best education possible from the earliest age possible. Overall, this will reduce the strain on public assistance and promote more inclusionary and productive lives for many children in Montana. Seeing how great of a message we have to teach, and knowing we will create such a powerful platform for sharing information and advocating for kids, really makes this VISTA year impactful. I can’t imagine a more meaningful way to have spent my year.

Jillian can be contacted at [email protected]