By Walter Greene
Working on the True Tales by Disability Advocates podcast has been just one of the many projects Joey has taken on as part of their disability advocacy. As the leader of the Disability Caucus for the Texas Democratic Party, Texas Democrats with Disabilities, and co-founder of the nonprofit Justice In Reach, their work to increase accessibility and protect the rights of disabled people in Texas is typically caught up in the data–and frequent doldrums–of politics. Through joining this first season of True Tales, they’ve introduced storytelling to their advocacy, learning to work with it as an agent of change that exists outside the confines of bureaucracy.
“I found that stories are able to grab people’s attention, and grabbing people’s attention is a very difficult thing to do in a world where everything is competing for it. People can connect to and they can relate to stories. When they see a bunch of data, everything sort of glazes over–they tune it out, they’re just bored, and they don’t understand why it’s important or how it connects to everything else. But with stories, it’s a lot clearer, and it’s a lot easier to relate to.”
Joey explains the importance of this project further:
“These are our stories, these are our perspectives, and I think that it’s beneficial for people who are not disabled and not considering [that] and won’t have access to these stories and perspectives. They may not consider them at all when they’re making decisions that impact our lives, and in many cases these decisions impact every aspect of a disabled person’s life, whether they are aware of it or not, in all little intricate ways policies can dictate.”
This is precisely the area where Joey’s work as leader of Texas Democrats with Disabilities focuses. Rarely are the policies and practices put in place concerning disabled people actually made by people with disabilities. As a consequence, the decisions made at the local, state, and federal level concerning disability are inexcusably poor reflections of the real needs and rights of the disabled community. Having almost come to the end of their second term as leader of the caucus, Joey has spent the last four years working tirelessly to counter this injustice.
“I learned so much coming into this position, much more than I was aware of before. But I knew that we had rights. . . . My role has been fighting, Nonstop advocacy. The biggest thing was building the community because we didn’t have data. When you think about politics, and you think about wins, people can say, “Oh, this group over here, they contributed to me winning this race, or this group over here, contributed to me running my race,” but they can’t say that about disabled people, because we didn’t have any data. We didn’t know who those voters were. So we’ve been building out our data, and through our own outreach, we’ve identified a lot of people. We’re able to send targeted information to help educate and make them aware of opportunities to get involved. We have monthly meetings, and every time that we learn of something that is relevant, or confusing, or that we need to clarify, or something fun that we could try to do, we reach out and involve the community in that. That is exhausting, but so worthwhile.”
Worthwhile is a modest assessment of the deep value of Joey’s work. There’s little to contest with the notion that elected officials should be held accountable for the communities that bring them into office, and for communities with secure access to recourse and representation, that privilege gets exercised without much issue. Yet somehow a group as large as the disability community–a community which includes one-in-four Americans–has remained woefully underserved. Joey’s task has been to fill that void from the bottom up.
“Even if we have laws that say that we are deserving of rights, and that we are deserving of being free of discrimination, it doesn’t mean anything if we can’t access them. . . . There are so many of us, and we all vote–well many of us vote except those who have been denied the right to vote because of guardianship, certain types of guardianship take away all of a person’s civil rights–but those of us who do vote and are not disenfranchised from voting, we know what we’re looking for. We know what we need, and we are determined to have our perspectives on people reflected in the outcome.”
As they prepare to end their time as leader of Texas Democrats with Disabilities, Joey’s looking to keep these efforts going through their organization Justice In Reach, a nonprofit that aims to provide free and timely access to legal aid and representation for Texans with Disabilities. They put their mission clearly:
“We are there for the community and peers in solidarity, providing resources as they are needed that were out of reach before, and helping our people fight back and fight for our rights–preserving autonomy and dignity and checking the bullies that exploit and take advantage.”
A clear mission isn’t all it takes to enact lasting change in the face of oppression and marginalization, but if anyone’s going to get this essential work done, it’s Joey. Aside from their years of work in government, success in having more than a dozen bills filed (with two making it fully through the Texas House of Representatives before being held up in the Senate), producing and hosting on the first season of a podcast, and founding of their own advocacy organization, Joey is just someone who gets things done. The road to progress is definitely not laid out clearly, and it might take all that they have, but in the end, it doesn’t seem like Joey would have it any other way.
Hear Joey host the latest episode of the True Tales by Disability Advocates Podcast, “New Normal,” available now on all platforms.