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  • Michelle Zeman

"Reunited and it Felt so Good" - a Recap of the 2023 Florida Self-Advocacy Conference

Several tables of people in a large room listening to a presentation. A large screen in the room read "Reunited Lifting Our Voices Together," the 2023 Florida Self-Advocacy Conference hosted by the FL SAND Fellows Leadership Program. Welcome. Saturday August 19, 2023

After two years, self-advocates across Florida reunited on August 18-20 for the 2023 Florida Self-Advocacy Conference in Orlando.

More than 130 self-advocates and their supporters convened at the Rosen Plaza for “Reunited, Lifting Our Voices Together - the 2023 Florida Self-Advocacy Conference.” “It was great to see everyone smiling and having a good time at the conference,” said Arizona Jenkins, past FL SAND Fellow and president-elect of Florida Self-Advocates Network’D (FL SAND), Florida’s network of grassroots self-advocacy groups. “There were people I haven’t seen in a while.”

The 2023 Florida Self-Advocacy Conference was hosted by the FL SAND Fellows Leadership Program. The Fellows is an immersive training program funded by the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council for experienced self-advocate leaders who want to continue building problem-solving, leadership, and management skills. In addition to planning and hosting the conference, FL SAND Fellows’ duties include providing training to self-advocates in Florida and support to the FL SAND Board of Directors.

Matthew Walzer, a digital strategist for Cause Inspired Media of Jacksonville, was the keynote speaker. Walzer was born with cerebral palsy and had made many strides towards independence in his life but was not able to tie his shoes without assistance. Already concerned about how he’d tie shoes after he left home for college, Walzer wrote Nike when he was just 16. The letter went viral and became part of the inspiration behind Nike’s FlyEase line of hands-free, easy-on sneakers.

FL SAND Fellow, Jason Hahr, wrote an article on his blog about the impact Walzer's talk had on his perspective. “(Matthew Walzer’s) speech was inspiring,” said Hahr. “Don’t worry, I am not going to step on your proverbial shoes and join the athletic wear game. But you have inspired me to write to companies and see if they can create an accessible dress shoe and suit.”

In the opening session of the conference, Amanda Baker was announced as the second recipient of the Zack Gottsagen Aspire, Advocate, Achieve, or A+ Award. The award was inspired by FL SAND member, Zack Gottsagen, star of the movie “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” as a way to recognize self-advocates who have made significant achievements in the disability community. Gottsagen was the first recipient of the award in 2021. Recipients are selected by FL SAND members. Baker, an advocacy specialist for Disability Rights Florida and a past FL SAND leader and Fellow, presented at one of this writer’s Partners in Policymaking classes. The work she has done in the disability community is remarkable. That said, she was the perfect A+ Award winner in my eyes.

As part of the general session on August 19, the FL SAND Fellows presented a partial version of the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council’s full-day Route to Self-Determination workshop. Self-advocates learned what self-determination means, what the five principles of self-determination are, and how they can use the principles in everyday life. Attendees worked on an activity during lunch to help them apply what they learned in the training. It was eye-opening to hear about everyone’s view on self-determination.

Other highlights from the weekend included advocacy bingo and trivia, learning about Disability Rights Florida and employment incentives from Baker, six breakout sessions led by self-advocates, exploring how good self-advocacy groups can become great groups, and enjoying karaoke with fellow self-advocates.

Beyssa Buil, FL SAND Fellow and break-out session presenter, was proud to be a part of the conference. “One of the highlights for me was being part of an amazing cadre of advocates working towards equity and inclusion. They are all beautiful human beings with so much clarity about love for other people, love of community, and knowing how to just have fun and be in the moment,” said Buil.

The conference ended on a high note, where the FL SAND Board of Directors held the organization’s annual membership meeting and elected new officers. The FL SAND board raised almost $8,000 to help offset the cost of travel and personal care for self-advocate members to attend the conference. FL SAND’s headliner sponsor and host of the Friday night kick-off event was Disability Rights Florida. Other FL SAND sponsors were The Arc of Florida, Panache Holistics, ABLE United, the Florida Department of Education-Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology (FAAST), Expedite Life, and Yellow Cab (Tampa).

We encourage every self-advocate in Florida to get involved and be a part of the self-advocacy movement in the state. You can do this by visiting the FL SAND website at and the Florida Self-Advocacy Central website at, by subscribing to the Florida Self-Advocacy Central mailing list on its website, following Florida Self-Advocacy Central on Facebook, or joining the FL SAND Facebook group. You can also join the Fellows and FL SAND members on their monthly advocacy call the first Monday of each month at 3:30 PM (Eastern). Message us via Facebook or email for the call-in number. All are welcome!


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