Thirty-five years ago, the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities in the Department of Administration created a groundbreaking advocacy and leadership training program to give people with disabilities and their families the resources and skills needed to communicate effectively with elected officials. Since 1987, more than 1,100 self-advocates and family members have graduated from Partners in Policymaking in Minnesota. Another 29,000 people gained confidence and agency as participants across the world. As the 40th cohort of Minnesotans begins the program this month, we check in with Colleen Wieck, executive director of the Governor’s Council for 41 years, who reflects on early challenges and tremendous progress.
Q: The basic Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, but Minnesota became a national disability rights leader earlier — in 1987 — with the formation of Partners in Policymaking. What do you remember from this first effort?
A: Minnesota’s leadership actually began much earlier – in September 1950 – when 90 parents from across the United States traveled to Minneapolis to form a parent association. Governor Luther Youngdahl spoke about rights – 40 years before the ADA. There have been many bipartisan advances in services and supports initiated in Minnesota and then adopted nationally. Our council has archived Minnesota’s and the country’s disability history at mn.gov/mnddc.
Q: The spark for Partners in Policymaking came in 1986, at a hearing chaired by US Senator David Durenberger. Please tell more about the surprising witness who caught everyone’s attention.
A: After listening to hours of testimony on Medicaid reform from professionals, the final witness was a mother from International Falls. She was the most important person to testify because her family was most affected by the outcome of the hearing. It was obvious then that we could prepare individuals and their family members to tell their stories and engage with elected officials. We could teach people to be effective advocates through a series of training events in a safe environment.
Q: And how well you did! A week ago, you launched your 40th eight-weekend session, which will end next May. Who is participating and what will they learn over the next few months?
A: This includes 35 people with disabilities and their family members. Our program (at no cost to participants) is based on 25 skills, including learning about the history of disability, inclusive education, how to engage in civil conversations, creating a vision, housing accompanied, assistive technology and how to communicate effectively with officials, because etiquette is important.
A: Etiquette is important when addressing officials. You can be more informal with local officials than you might see at a grocery store. Formality in the use of appropriate titles increases when addressing members of the Legislative Assembly and Congress. We want our partner graduates to show respect to elected officials, and so we provide information on how to communicate effectively and follow protocol in written communications, telephone calls, office visits or during hearings.
Q: How are your participants selected?
A: The selection of a class is based on a number of criteria. Parents of young children with intellectual disabilities, as well as self-advocates with a wide range of disabilities, are the main target groups. Current membership in advocacy organizations is not required. Entrants should reflect the composition of the general population of Minnesota, in terms of racial and ethnic representation, and efforts should be made to achieve gender balance. All parts of the state should be considered in terms of geographic and economic diversity – each brings a different perspective and adds another element to the shared learning and networking that occurs within each classroom.
Q: And how do you structure your eight sessions?
A: The program is sequential, with each weekend session laying the groundwork for the next. Each weekend, critical concepts and key terms related to one or two topics are introduced and one or more national speakers discuss the latest thinking around their area of expertise. Because the training is competency-based, opportunities to apply these concepts through small group exercises are built into each session.
Q: A key factor in your success is that the program is driven not only by politicians, but also by participants. Why does this seem to work best?
A: We select national and state faculty members who bring best practice expertise and alignment with the values of the Developmental Disabilities Act (DDA). The highest-rated session is usually a trip to the State Capitol due to the outstanding past and current legislators who serve as coaches and mentors. But we also emphasize small group activities led by the partners themselves so they can practice their leadership skills.
Q: What have some participants continued to do, either formally (in political roles, for example) or simply in the way they parent more confidently?
A: After graduation, participants can get involved by joining advocacy groups, presenting at conferences, and communicating with local, state, and federal officials. Individuals also apply to join governor-appointed boards, councils, and commissions. Other graduates are going back to school and looking for better jobs. Some graduates run for public office.
Q: You have been at the forefront of this program since its inception. How has it evolved?
A: Here are two examples: In 1987, the success was that a student with an intellectual disability was integrated into one or two classes. Today, we are advocating for inclusive education and post-secondary enrolment. In 1987, action alerts were sent through the US Postal Service. Today, social media provides instant messaging about pending legislation to a statewide network of advocates. The council has also developed an app called Telling Your Story, which individuals and family members can use to write their personal story, upload a photo and then forward it to elected officials.
Q: What remains the biggest challenge for families?
A: Families tell us they still don’t know their rights, what services are available and how to find help.
Q: What are the most encouraging changes in the way people with disabilities are treated and in the way they live their lives?
A: In 1987, more than 1,000 people with intellectual disabilities lived in public institutions. In the same year, our council published “A New Way of Thinking”, in which we recommended that people with intellectual disabilities live, learn, work and enjoy life in the community. In 1990, the ADA was adopted, based on the goals of inclusion, full participation, economic self-sufficiency, and equal opportunity for all persons with disabilities. In July 2000, the last resident left the large state hospital system. Thousands more Minnesotans with developmental disabilities have benefited from changes to federal and state laws. There have been great strides made over the past 60 years in public attitudes and understanding, as measured in our latest Minnesotans Attitudes Survey published on our website.