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Training workshop

Kayla McKeon, right, speaker of the fictitious House of Representatives, signals a member of the House during a mock session on Thursday afternoon in Bismarck. Watching at left are JacLynn Juvrud, of Grand Forks, who was the journal clerk and Jake Anderson, of Grafton, the chief bill clerk.

On Thursday, the state House of Representatives and the state Senate were in session — a training session.

People from across North Dakota became legislators for a day as part of the North Dakota Disabilities Advocacy Consortium third annual Legislative Training Institute.

The three-day event aims to teach people with disabilities how the legislative process works and how they can become self-advocates. They held mock House and Senate floor sessions to learn about government matters.

"They write the bills, they debate the bills, they take them back, just like a regular Legislature does," said Judy DeWitz, an event organizer.

For some participants, this is their first time learning how the Legislature works. Allen Becker, of Minot, said the last time he was in the state Capitol was in 1983 for a school field trip.

But on Thursday, Becker became a state senator. He learned what it takes to get a bill passed, which he characterized as crucial.

Steven Beard, president of Advocates Leading their Lives, a statewide group of people with disabilities, said the skills learned through the training institute help people with disabilities learn how they can influence state politics.

"It also helps develop speaking skills and understand the process so you can go in there prepared," he said.

Beard and Becker, who is also involved with Advocates Leading their Lives, said they would like to advocate for legislation this upcoming session related to "supported decision-making," or an alternative to guardianship for people with disabilities.

Public speaking doesn't come natural for most, but it does for Kayla McKeon.

McKeon, the first registered Capitol Hill lobbyist with Down syndrome, played the role of speaker of the state House on Thursday and is a keynote speaker for the training institute.

A self-described motivational speaker, McKeon is manager of grassroots advocacy for the National Down Syndrome Society. She said the most important part of lobbying is to share your personal story, and, simply put, show a face to legislators.

"We're all human to begin with. That's what I like to always say: We're human. I can talk to a senator or congressperson all I want," she said.

McKeon said the work she's done with the National Down Syndrome Society includes campaigns to get companies to hire people with Down syndrome and to push states to pass bills to discontinue the practice of paying subminimum wages to employees with disabilities.

DeWitz said participants do not take a position on an issue or create an agenda for the upcoming legislative session, but focus on teaching the process and how to communicate with legislators.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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Education and Health Reporter