Building an Advocacy Network

A photo of an African American woman wearing glasses and a muted green shawl standing next to her African American young adult son, whose wearing a gray shirt, black blazer, and beige scarf
Teresa Heard (left) and her son Derek Heard (right)

Teresa has made her mark within Georgia’s developmental disability (DD) community as a leader, advocate and mother. She has also instilled important advocacy philosophies in Derek, including personal connection, decision-making and political action.

With creativity, persistence and love, Teresa, an Albany, Georgia resident and former Georgia Council for Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) board member, was able to utilize her connections from her 15 years in the DD field, as well as support from faith and advocacy organizations, to help her son launch his own graphic design business. 

Derek aptly named the company Derek’s Doodles

For both Derek and Teresa, autonomy and choice are important, especially for people with DD who have been historically deprived of such fundamental rights. And when Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services were not able to help Derek get a job in his desired field, she took action. 

Though VR had set him up with some work experience at Big Lots, Derek didn’t feel fulfilled. And since society isn’t structured to provide full supports for people like Derek, who has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, he was not given the opportunity to pursue his dreams through formal systems. Teresa knew his path would look different from her other children, but was determined to help support him in a meaningful life.

“So, my middle son is going to Georgia Tech. He’s getting experiences now, collegially — internships and those kinds of things. [Derek] won’t be able to get that kind of experience. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with sweeping at Big Lots or packaging things. But that just isn’t what he wanted to do. And so I really could not wait on the school to get us those experiences. We just had to go out and get it ourselves.”

In an interview with GCDD, Derek reported enjoying work and wanted to save his earnings to buy his own house one day, and to further develop his business. So, when he left high school in December of 2022, the mother-son duo went to work to continue building upon their network and connections. 

Teresa Heard explained, “Forming connections a lot of times is what opens a door. And it’s everybody. That isn’t something like a singular thing with my son, my husband, me, my other [kids]. This is just people in general forming those kinds of connections.”

Derek is wearing a white and black plaid shirt under a black blazer jacket as he stands behind a large, brown podium giving a speech
Derek speaking at TASH Conference about being a self-advocate

And Derek has done just that. Thanks to his self-advocacy efforts and his mother’s connections, he has done paid graphics for Rev Up Georgia, become a board member for Uniting for Change, created artwork for Stacey Abrams’ “Disability Votes” campaign, spoken publicly at the 2022 TASH Conference in Arizona, and is currently working on a logo redesign for the Emory Autism Center and considering working with the media team at his church.

Though Derek now reports loving church, past congregations were not always supportive of the Heard family. Teresa feels they have now found a church that will embrace Derek by making the space more accessible, inviting and accepting for people with disabilities. Teresa is on the church’s committee to improve accessibility and was happy to report that the pastor said the church can “do better” than their current efforts.

Through their continued networking, Derek Heard became connected with the Stacey Abrams campaign, whose platform placed an emphasis on eradicating Georgia’s 7,000-person Medicaid waiting list for people with DD. 

Though Derek wasn’t always politically active, his mom helped him understand the importance of continued advocacy through voting.

“At first [Derek] didn’t want to vote. There’s a lot of people that don’t understand the significance of voting. So, I told him ‘Derek, do you know there are people right now that made laws so that you could not get a regular high school diploma? And there are people that are making laws to make it really hard for you to get your dream job?’ He couldn’t believe it. ‘You have to get these people to make laws that don’t hurt you.’ And I said, ‘the number one way that you can do that is voting people into office to represent what your ideas are, right?’ And so, ever since I explained that to him, he was like, ‘we all need to vote!’” 

A quote graphic that says, "“I have my own allies that I will choose to be with me. I have my own bag of supports, ideas, and choices through supported decision-making. I'm in the driver's seat. -Derek Heard"Just as Derek and Teresa continue to advocate through voting, they are strong supporters and advocates of a new legal alternative to guardianship known as “supported decision-making.” Under supported decision-making (SDM), a person with a disability is able to select a team of supporters to help guide them in the areas of their choosing. Derek has been able to find knowledgeable supports to help him with his business. Gabby Melnick of Uniting for Change helps Derek with his website while Stacey Ramirez of Rev Up Georgia helped him start the business. 

When GCDD met with Derek, he held up his iPad depicting a slide from his 2022 TASH presentation. It read, “I have my own allies that I will choose to be with me. I have my own bag of supports, ideas, and choices through supported decision-making. I’m in the driver’s seat.”

For Teresa, finding the right supports has been an integral part of her continued advocacy as a mother. She noted, “I always tell people that part of being a parent is helping your child find those kinds of supports with the idea that, eventually, they would make their own. I’m not going to be here forever,” laughed Teresa. 

“And so the more support there is around, the better it will be for him — for people to check in on him and make sure he’s okay. It’s extending that kind of family network of people around.”

Even though Teresa might not “be here forever,” she has built a community and inspired advocacy efforts that will transcend time, space and generations. Her continued advocacy is helping to make Derek’s dreams come true.