A longtime advocate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is the 2016 Access Press Charlie Smith Award winner. Clifford Poetz has been a disability rights activist since the early 1970s, with many remarkable accomplishments to his credit. He will be the guest of honor at the Access Press banquet November 4 in Bloomington.
News of the award was a surprise to Poetz. “I was very humbled to learn that I am receiving the Charlie Smith Award,” he said. “I consider it to be quite an honor.” He knew Smith and is proud to accept an award given in Smith’s name. “This award means a lot to me.”
Looking back on his work as a self-advocate, Poetz said he is driven by the desire for everyone to have the best life possible and to be part of the community. Poetz also gives credit to the many people he has worked wit over the years, adding that he couldn’t have accomplished as much alone.
Poetz had several nominations for the award, in recognition of his many years of volunteer advocacy, for his service on many boards and committees, and his work at the University of Minnesota Institute on Community Integration (ICI). He has been a steady and consistent presence at the state capitol. He was the first person with a developmental disability to testify before a Congressional subcommittee, back in 1973.
“It is hard to overemphasize the courage and commitment that Cliff has shown in more than 45 years of community advocacy and leadership,” said nominator Charlie Lakin. “Cliff has never relented in his commitment to stand up to injustice and to make life better for people with disabilities. Cliff has given enormously in time and effort to support full citizenship and equal opportunity for people with developmental disabilities.”
Lakin added that even though Poetz’s mobility has been restricted in recent years, he still finds the resolve to attend meetings and events to promote acceptance, inclusion and well-being of people with disabilities.
“Cliff’s advocacy has helped build the self-advocacy movement, bringing hundreds of people into the decision-making process regarding disability services on local, state and national levels,” said nominator Jerry Smith.
Noting his lifelong dedication to disability rights, nominator John G. Smith said, “I think it is important to recognize Cliff to encourage others to keep up the fight over the long pull … I know of no one who has a better understanding of how politics enters into decisions at all levels, and has the interest and patience to get involved and stick around until his voice is heard.”
“Cliff’s work has made a difference in the lives of people with disabilities in the community, including those without a choice and those who were not valued enough to receive a gravestone,” said nominator Renata Ticha. “Cliff as a person with a disability himself understands exactly what the issues are for others with disabilities, including difficult in being able to live independently and have a job. Without Cliff’s advocacy at the local, state and national label, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities would not be where they are now.”
Poetz’s nominators agree that while positive change for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities would have come eventually, Poetz was a driving force in spurring that change along and making it happen more quickly.
At the time Poetz became an activist, about 200,000 Minnesotans were still living in institutions. “Cliff has always been a front-edge dreamer of and catalyst for change,” said Lakin.
A native of Watertown, Poetz was placed in Minneapolis’ Portland Residence congregative living facility when he was young. Self-advocacy was all but unheard of in the 1970s. Poetz soon organized his fellow Portland Residence residents to improve services and make residents’ voices heard.
Poetz left Portland Residence to live independently in the community, with few community supports available. He also left employment at a sheltered workshop to advocate as a volunteer, at times living in dire poverty before being hired at ICI. The early days of the self-advocacy movement were at a time of dealing with extreme prejudice, said Lakin. Families were often ashamed to have a member with a developmental disability. “It took incredible courage for Cliff to stand up to such prejudice and discrimination to become one of the very earliest self-advocates for rights and opportunity for individuals with developmental disabilities,” said Lakin.
In 1970 Poetz and others founded a group calling “Telling It Like It Is.” The group traveled the Upper Midwest educating Arc chapters and other audiences about the experiences of living in congregate care settings, and the pain and dissemination from being labeled as “retarded.”
The group’s work was highlighted in a 1972 Minneapolis Star article, and drew the attention of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy. Kennedy invited Poetz to testify on the Developmental Disabilities Act. Poetz spoke to a Senate subcommittee.
His early work led to the development of the first organized self-advocacy efforts across Minnesota. Poetz is recognized for his involvement in the start of groups including People First Minnesota, United Handicapped Federation and Advocating Change Together (ACT). Poetz soon assumed leadership roles in public policy reform and leadership development. He worked on legislative agendas to put people first, and spoke with authority on issues affecting people with all types of disabilities. He helped organize one of the first self-advocacy conferences in Minnesota. The start of Metro Mobility, work on voting rights, work to establish smaller group homes and get people out of larger institutions and many more issues were part of Poetz’s early work.
He was among the founders of Remembering With Dignity, the project that provides proper headstones in cemeteries at state institutions. He performed in the play “Let Heaven and Nature Sing” at the Minnesota Historic Center. The play is about life in the state hospital at Faribault in the 1940s.
Arc chapters in the Twin Cities, Minnesota and United States have benefitted from his service on their boards. He served on the Minnesota State Council on Disability, co-chaired the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals and the ICI Consumer Advisory Council. He has been involved with Interact Center and served on its board. He has played a number of advisory roles, ranging from work with the University of Illinois/Chicago’s Research and Training Center on Aging and Developmental Disabilities to working with Headwaters Foundation.
His many awards include the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation International Award for Self- Empowerment in 2000. Poetz is just one of four people to receive that award. His many other honors include the Founders’ Award from the Arc Greater Twin Cities, Hero of the Arc Award and the very first Governor’s Award from MSCOD. For the 20-year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Poetz was interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio.
The Arc Minnesota, the Minnesota chapter of the American Association on Intellectual and Development Disabilities and ICI give leadership awards in Poetz’s name to recognize his life’s work and to encourage others. Nominators said those awards show the great level of respect for Poetz’s career and his work.
Access Press is also proud to honor Poetz. “Cliff is one of the true pioneers of the self-advocacy movement and we are pleased and proud to recognize his many years of service,” said Executive Director/Editor Tim Benjamin. “Some of the nominations said it best when they noted that the self-advocacy movement would not be where it is today without Cliff’s years of work.”
“This time of year is always exciting as we, the board of directors, get to review all of the nominees for the Charlie Smith Award. Although this year’s pool was a bit smaller the nominees were all very worthy and represented a wide array of work,” said Access Press Board President Kristin Jorenby. “We had a difficult decision to make as these were all outstanding individuals and groups. Cliff has been part of the foundation of advocacy for our community and those of us that are following can learn a great deal from him and others. I want to encourage those that are emerging leaders to learn from those that have paved the way for us, like Cliff, but to also blaze new paths that will set the stage for those yet to come. I look forward to having Cliff’s continued support and voice as a part of our Access Press family. “
Details about the banquet, including ticket information, can be found here.