When I was growing up, our neighbors made the difficult decision to place their daughter, my friend Hannah, at the Cambridge Regional Treatment Center. That tough decision for this family sparked my passion to make a difference supporting people and their families.
My career has followed the evolution of services for people with disabilities. More than 40 years ago, I began my career as a special education teacher for the first public school classroom for students with significant disabilities, ages 4 – 21 in a nine-district special education cooperative in northern Minnesota. I was struck by the resilience and adaptability of families and their fierce dedication in advocating and seeking the very best for their child. I also saw the toll it took without support or respite, and without knowing what the future would bring. I left teaching as the developmental disabilities (DD) waiver first started in Minnesota to join Carlton County as a case manager and develop home and community-based services in our area.
I came to the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) three years later to coordinate a project between 11 counties and DHS to help people from regional treatment centers move back to their home communities. Since then, I’ve held a variety of roles at Hennepin County and DHS, most recently as the director of disability services. One constant throughout my career is a vision of full inclusion for people with disabilities.
From our history as a state with the highest per capita use of institutions, we now have extensive home and community-based service options and public investments in the lives of people with disabilities. Our system continues to adapt and respond to the needs and expectations of the diverse people served. The principles and values envisioned to support people to live their best life over the years still resonate. Through innovation and creativity on the part of so many throughout our system, we learn and continue to strive to bring the full promise of those values to life for each person – a fully inclusive life with purpose and belonging.
Our system relies on case managers, assessors, and providers as important allies making a difference to tens of thousands of Minnesotans every day. We are on a journey to rebalance the power – to have power with, not over – people with disabilities. This means expanding ways for people to have information, opportunities, and experiences to inform their decisions and choices and control over their services. Choices and control to design a plan with services responding to what is important to them and for them, and to make decisions that change over time. It means continually evaluating what it takes to bring the values behind person centered practices to life. Those of us who are part of the system can make a difference to those who use services, as well as each other as we apply those same values to work better together.
We are a community and it will take all of us to create meaningful and sustainable changes that help people live their best life. There aren’t easy solutions to complex challenges we face. Lack of affordable, accessible housing, transportation, and sufficient workforce are realities that mean we cannot use the same approaches that may have worked in the past. Communities of practice and other strategies to learn from each other are effective in adapting practice. Systems change requires each of us to personally make changes, organizations to make changes and systems to adapt as we learn from each other. We are our own harshest critics, which drives us to become better. I like being part of the solution, even the messy parts. Where there is conflict, I want to understand why and what is important to the other person. Amazing things can happen when people come together to make a difference. I am energized and encouraged with the collaboration between talented, creative and passionate people – people with disabilities, families, providers, advocates, counties, tribes and within state government. Over and over again, this collaboration around common goals opens up understanding, opportunities and pathways through our system to help people live their best life.
Alex Bartolic, Director for Disability Services, Minnesota Department of Human Services, is retiring from her position in January.