My new role as director of the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) began on July 2, 2018. In some ways, that day felt much like many that had come before over the course of 28 years spent working as hard as I can to make life better for people with disabilities by conducting research, training and outreach to promote inclusive communities. In other ways, this change in title – and the trust I know it symbolizes – represented a fresh start to humbly approach the work in new ways, listening and learning with a broader perspective.
While much of my professional life has been spent at ICI, even more of my personal life has been touched by the scope of our work. Family has always been a priority for me. Together with my husband Brad, we have two sons, Amos and Jack, and count among our immediate family my brother-in-law Nathan who lives with autism and other disabilities. We have been a primary support system for him for the past 25 years. Through this lens, I have seen up close and personal special education, transition, housing, employment, health and wellness, social inclusion, self-determination, self-advocacy and just about every imaginable aspect of the service and support systems and policies that are designed to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). I have seen the best of these, and the very worst of them, and this experience has strongly influenced my determination to make life better for individuals and families by advocating for true, inclusive communities.
My career has been strongly influenced by my own education and early life experiences. I was a work study student in a sheltered workshop in Indiana when the concepts of gentle teaching and supported employment were just emerging. I worked on a clinical diagnostic and evaluation team that determined eligibility for developmental disability services in that state. I listened to families tell their stories and observed the system challenges they faced. I saw the intersectionality of poverty and disability and the challenges that came with labeling young children, especially when it comes to disabilities. I went on to graduate school and became a LEND fellow. This was the single best opportunity I had to learn from and work with professionals from different academic backgrounds to figure out what was going on with a child and to get them connected to the best clinical, educational and community services. From there, I began an effort to close institutions in Indiana and to open group homes to support people with IDD in the community. That eventually brought me to Minnesota to visit the School of Social Work PhD program. During that visit, I met with Jen York Barr and Charlie Lakin, and was so excited about the possibilities at ICI, that I changed course and came to Minnesota instead of the University of Pittsburgh.
During these 28 years, I have had different roles and responsibilities at ICI, but one thing has remained constant – I feel privileged to have a career I love; one that has offered me diversity in my work, ongoing challenges to figure out, and the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from so many talented colleagues along the way. I am fortunate to have been mentored by some the best in this field: Charlie Lakin, Cliff Poetz and my predecessor David R. Johnson, to name just a few.
Looking ahead, I am committed to meaningful research, and to our community partners. Collaboration with partners has always been and will remain key to informing the work of ICI in the future. There are many opportunities, and yes challenges, we will encounter as we strive to improve the policies and practices that will ensure that all children, youth and adults with disabilities are valued by, and contribute to, their communities of choice.