When I learned about an exciting bill that was going through the United States Senate called the Cogswell-Macy Act that could help millions of students living with vision loss, I wanted to tell everyone I knew about it, as I wanted to raise as much awareness as possible. While I know that my family and friends enjoy hearing about the things I’m passionate about, one of the most important things I can do to raise awareness about this bill is contact senators and congress members and tell them more about why they should pass it, and how it would impact students like me. Here are my tips for contacting senators and Congress members to talk about bills that have the power to help millions of people, or that have the power to hurt millions of people.
First, find your elected officials
Do you know the names of the senators for your state? What about your local congress member? Priority is given to comments from the elected official’s constituents, so while it may be tempting to call one of the “famous” elected officials that you see on TV all the time, it’s best to start with your representatives. This can be done by running a web search for the senators and congress members in your ZIP code, or through the official US House of Representatives/Senate websites.
Locate the phone numbers for Washington, DC as well as their field office
Phone lines can be extremely busy for the main congressional offices in Washington, DC- especially when there is a particularly controversial bill that is being heard. A great alternative for contacting senators and congress members is to call through their field office, which is located within their home state- my senators from Virginia have six different field offices, so I typically call the one that is closest to my house. The field office can take messages and pass along information to the head office in Washington, DC.
Can I call senators or congress members from outside of my state?
While this varies from person to person, many senators and congress members welcome calls and messages from people that are from outside of their state. I typically like to contact the sponsors of a bill if they are accepting out-of-state calls and share my support or mention why I believe the bill should be changed or killed if it is a bill I dislike. However, I prefer to reach out to my friends who live in those states and ask them to contact their elected officials because constituent voices are always prioritized, and it’s better to have multiple people calling about an issue instead of having the same person leave hundreds of messages.
Options for contacting senators or congress members
There are a few different options for contacting senators or congress members:
- Calling on the phone during business hours and talking to a staff member (note that you might have to stay on hold for a while)
- Calling on the phone outside of business hours and leaving a message
- Sending an email or contact form through their website
- Sending a letter through the mail
What should I say to senators or congress members?
One of the things that helps me when I am trying to figure out what I want to say about a bill is to write down the main points that I want to talk about on my whiteboard or on a document on my computer. This is especially important for bills that might not be on their radar or that have not received significant media coverage.
If I were calling my local representative to tell them about why they should pass a bill that would improve college transition services for students with vision loss, the most important points I would want to cover include:
- There is no convenient place for students with vision loss to learn about accessibility and disability resources for pursuing higher education
- At least twelve million people in the US have some form of vision loss
- The current unemployment rate for people with vision loss is over 50%, with some reports listing it as high as 70%
- By giving people with vision loss a resource where they can learn more about pursuing higher education with a disability, they are more likely to consider pursuing higher education and gaining meaningful employment once they learn that there are disability and accessibility resources available
- This bill is a low-cost way to spread information about existing state and federal resources.
- Seeing The Future: A Proposed Resource For Students With Vision Impairments
- Seeing The Future: My Feature in 10 Ideas
Sharing your message with senators and congress members
Once I have my bulleted list together, I can create a brief script that I can read over a voicemail or pass on as a message to a staff member. If I was creating a script for the bill that would improve college transition services, it might look something like this:
“Hello! My name is Veronica Lewis, and I am a college student with low vision and a low vision/assistive technology blogger at Veronica With Four Eyes. I am calling in support of the Seeing The Future Act, which would benefit the over twelve million people living in the US with some form of vision loss and provide a low-cost way to spread information about existing resources. The unemployment rate for people with vision loss is at almost 70%, and many people are not aware of the disability and accessibility resources that are available to them in higher education. By passing the Seeing The Future Act and giving people with vision loss a resource where they can learn more about pursuing higher education with a disability, they are more likely to consider pursuing higher education and gaining meaningful employment once they learn what services are available to them. Please vote YES on the Seeing The Future Act and consider sponsoring the bill to help make learning accessible for everyone. Thank you!”
While it’s good to call in support of bills, what if I was calling about a bill that I did not want passed? This is the script I used when calling for elected officials to vote no on a healthcare bill a few years ago:
“Hello, my name is Veronica, and I am a college student with a pre-existing condition. I would like to encourage Senator (insert name here) to vote NO on the proposed Graham-Cassidy Healthcare Bill. I want to ensure that I can get health insurance for my condition in the future so that I may work and be a taxpayer, as not having health insurance would mean I could not get treatment for my condition and therefore I would not be able to work. Again, please vote NO on the proposed Graham-Cassidy bill. Thank you for your time!”
Since this was a bill that was extremely popular, I did not have to give much explanation as to what the bill was and why it wasn’t helpful.
If I like the idea of a bill but want to mention something that should be changed, I can also contact my elected officials to propose that idea. If I was wanting to attach the Seeing The Future Act to the Cogswell-Macy Act, the script would look something like this:
“Hello! My name is Veronica Lewis, and I am a college student with low vision and a low vision/assistive technology blogger at Veronica With Four Eyes. I am calling in support of the Seeing The Future Act and the Cogswell-Macy Act, which would benefit the over twelve million people living in the US with some form of vision loss and provide a low-cost way to spread information about existing resources and improve funding for vision services. By combining these bills, people with vision loss will have resources in K-12 education, as well as a resource where they can learn more about pursuing higher education with a disability and gaining meaningful employment once they graduate. Please vote YES to combine the Cogswell-Macy Act and Seeing The Future Act and consider sponsoring the bill to help make learning accessible for everyone. Thank you!”
Sending an email or letter
Sometimes, I have more to say than I can mention in a voicemail or phone conversation and choose to write an email or longer letter instead. While I recognize that elected officials are busy, I request a response from my local senators and congress member as I want to make sure that my comments were not sent into the void. If it is a particular time sensitive issue, such as when a bill was being passed in my home state had contradicting language and was due to be voted on the next day, I will call the field office to make sure that they receive my email.
Other Tips For Contacting Senators and Congress Members
- If the offices are closed, email is a faster method for contacting offices and staff
- Look at the social media for senators and congress members and take note of the issues that they are talking about- is there a way to relate these issues to your message?
- Field offices follow the local time zone, while offices in Washington, DC follow the Eastern time zone
- If you have met the elected official in person before, it can be helpful to mention that in the message, i.e. “we talked about this issue at your town hall.”