Empowering People with Physical Disabilities through Advocacy Skills Training


The process by which people gain more control over the decisions that affect their own lives is a key concept in community organizing and community psychology.

Purpose and Anticipated Benefits

The study purposes were to examine the effects of training members to report issues during advocacy group meeting, to evaluate the effects of training two consecutive chairs to conduct action-oriented meetings, and to help people understand the empowerment process rather than to actually display empowered behaviors.


Fabricio Balcazar did the initial research on this study for his dissertation. He worked with Tom Seekins, Stephen Fawcett, and Bill Hopkins, all with the Research and Training Center on Independent Living, along with 14 members of an advocacy organization to refine the process. 




For two years, four women and two men were trained to identify and report issues at group meetings. Eight members did not participate; two left by the time training started, and three came to meetings only every once in a while. In addition, two chairs were trained to conduct action-oriented meetings. Measurement of members’ activities outside meetings and related outcomes on identified issues also were collected. Meeting attendance was irregular. Reasons for not coming included lack of transportation, poor motivation, and health problems. Members were asked to report on events that affected their ability to live independently. Examples of reported issues were parking violations, needed curb cuts, and enforcement of fire safety codes. The other targeted behavior was deciding what to do about an issue. Closure could be a group vote on a motion, committee formation, or tabling. Observers listed to eight meetings randomly selected to list agenda items discussed and how each was closed. The researchers also recoded issues reported, interviews, and group outcomes.


Trained members reported an average of 0.6 issues per meetings before training and 3.2 issues per meeting about training. The results suggested a better performance for trained members than untrained members relative to time number of issues reported during group meetings. The performance of both chairs also improved consistently after training. Reported increases in group members’ engagements with service providers and decision makers and the number of reported outcomes also suggested an overall improvement in the effectiveness of the consumer organization. Another positive outcome of group effectiveness was that the board of directors of the local center for independent living proceeded to change its bylaws in order to allow the chair to become a voting member. This had been the group’s goal since the consumer organization was created five years earlier.

Confirmation of reported events was established by independent reports, permanent records (for example, minutes of meetings, newsletters, and newspaper releases), and direct observations of reported changes ill tile community (for example, new curb cuts). Not surprisingly, group members’ scrutiny of the quality of the center for independent living services generated some conflict with staff members who resisted group members’ attempts to collect information were suspicious of group members’ activities and motives. Their resistance increased as consumers became more effective in communicating with each other and pointing out problems with the quality of services.

The second chair had to recruit support from the Board of Directors to sort out some of the differences with the center director. Unfortunately, after a year as chairperson of the group, he decided to withdraw his nomination for a second term. He said he was “fed up” with the situation, and the tension made him sick. The obstacles confronted by group members reflected some of the natural consequences for engaging in advocacy activities and are frequently unavoidable because of the intrinsic dialectic nature of the process itself.

This descriptive study also illustrated the value of longitudinal research with consumer organizations. Following a nearly three-year period of struggle as a consumer advisory committee, an additional two years were required to establish stable level of advocacy activities and subsequent changes in organizational effectiveness. Although the organization continued operating for an additional year, prevailing resistance from center staff resulted in a temporary dissolution of the group. They reemerged as the “Lawrence Coalition for People With Disabilities” with some new members and become active in the Kansas State Legislature regarding disability rights and attendant care services for people with severe disabilities in the state of Kansas.


The problems and obstacles encountered by the members of this organization are a good representation of the problems encountered by consumer organizations. Many consumer organizations struggle with the fact that few people are really committed to bring about change.


Balcazar, F. E., Seekins, T., Fawcett, S. B., & Hopkins, B. L. (1990).  Empowering people with physical disabilities through advocacy skills training. American Journal of Community Psychology, 18, 281‑295.

Seekins, T., Balcazar, F. E., & Fawcett, S. B. (1986). Consumer involvement in advocacy organizations: Rehabilitating communities for independent living. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.

Balcazar, F. E., & Seekins, T. (1987). Advocacy training: A look at the research data. National Conference on Independent Living, Washington, DC.

Balcazar, F. E., Seekins, T., & Fawcett, S. B. (1987). Effects of advocacy training on group members' skills and community outcomes. Community Research and Action Conference, Columbia, SC.

Balcazar, F. E., & Fawcett, S. B. (1987). Teaching leadership skills in community advocacy organizations. Association for Voluntary Action Scholars Conference, Kansas City, MO.

Balcazar, F. E., Bradford, B., & Fawcett, S. B. (1987). Consumer involvement in advocacy. National Conference on Independent Living, Washington, DC.

Balcazar, F., & Fawcett, S. B. (1988). Overview of community advocacy programs. National Conference on Independent Living, Washington, DC.

Balcazar, F. (1988). A case study on empowerment with persons with physical disabilities. Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL.

Balcazar, F. E. (1988).  Promoting consumer involvement in advocacy organizations. Huntington Coalition of people with disabilities, Huntington Independent Living Center, Workshop, Huntington, WV.

Balcazar, F. E., Mathews, R. M., Fawcett, S. B., & Bradford, B. (1989). Consumer advocacy training: Replications in three independent living centers. Independent Living Conference, Bethesda, MD.

Balcazar, F. E., & White, G. W. (1989). Advocacy skill training for people with disabilities. Workshop, Lincoln, NE.

Balcazar, F. E., & White, G. W. (1989). Advocacy skill training for people with disabilities. Workshop, Omaha, NE.

Balcazar, F., & White, G. W. (1989, September). Advocacy skill training for people with disabilities. Lincoln, NE.

Balcazar, F. E. (1991). Teaching clients to set personal goals and develop plans for action.  Kansas Department of Rehabilitation Services, Workshop, Lawrence, KS.

Balcazar, F. E. (1991). Teaching clients to set personal goals and develop plans for action. Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services, Workshop, Chicago, IL.