John Tschida, a disability advocate, author and friend to many, is the new director of the National Institute on Disability Rehabilitation and Research in Washington, DC. While Tschida’s new appointment is a huge plus nationally, his depth of knowledge, advocacy skills and political savvy will be missed in Minnesota.
The institute is part of the U.S. Department of Education and leads much of the nation’s work to understand and reduce barriers in education, employment and community participation for people with disabilities. Tschida succeeds fellow Minnesotan Charlie Lakin, who served as director from 2011 to February 2014.
Tschida said he will miss his Minnesota friends and urged each of them to continue their advocacy efforts. “It truly takes a village,” he said. He also urged everyone to start bringing in younger self-advocates to “build the bench,” using one of his usual sport analogies. He took a leave from his post as Allina’s director for public policy and innovation.
He worked for Allina Health and Courage Kenny Institute and the institute’s predecessor, Courage Center, for the past 15 years. A well-known author on disability and health care issues, Tschida has written numerous articles on disability, health care and public policy for local and national newspapers and magazines.
He and wife Rachel and daughter are moving from Eagan to the Washington, D.C. area, where they will be closer to one of their two adult sons. Tschida’s friends and colleagues were quick to praise him. Joel Ulland, assistant director for legislative affairs for UCare, said, “John is a close friend of mine and he will truly be missed. He has a gift for understanding and resonating with his audience. He could start his day explaining to an elementary school class what it is like to live with a disability and in the afternoon provide a detailed presentation about Medicaid payment policy to a group of policymakers and legislators. Both presentations would be understandable for the audience and interesting to listen to. I will certainly miss his sense of humor when we are in committee hearings at the Minnesota capitol that go until midnight but I am guessing he will not miss those late nights.
Steve Larson, senior policy director of The Arc Minnesota, describes Tschida as a coalition builder, who helped everyone work together to expand the influence of the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD). “His knowledge, leadership and grant writing skills have helped create a much stronger voice for the disability community.”
“John has been a terrific leader on disability policy in Minnesota,” said Pamela Hoopes, Legal Director, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid/Minnesota Disability Law Center. “His encyclopedic knowledge of disability issues, combined with the amazing political savvy that made him such an effective advocate are irreplaceable. He has been a treasured ally on policy issues for many years, and I will miss his intelligence, wit, determination, and elegance. In his absence, I will hold him in mind as the paragon of effective, classy advocacy.”
Attorney Anne Henry of the Disability Law Center said her work with Tschida has been “simply amazing.” “What a remarkable person! We will all miss his invaluable and wise leadership on Minnesota’s disability and health care policy. Minnesota’s disability community is very fortunate and proud to have John with his incredible suitcase of talents, keen intellect, broad experience, vast knowledge, common sense, a very well developed sense of humor and a stellar ability to work with a wide range of people heading to Washington DC to lead an organization of such national importance.”
Alex E. Bartolic, director of Disability Services at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, called Tschida “a trusted and effective advocate for innovations in service delivery to be responsive to people with disabilities in real and meaningful ways.”
“An unparalleled master of disability policy issues and trends.” is how Jan Malcolm, vice president, public policy, community benefit for Allina Health and president of the Courage Kenny Foundation described Tschida “His broad knowledge of and contributions to evidence-based research has made him an indispensable resource to policy makers, to Courage Center and now Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute and Allina Health leaders.”
Kevin Goodno, Chair, Government Relations Practice, Fredrikson & Byron, P.A., called Tschida a man of integrity who has earned his influence through hard work, integrity, intellect, and personal commitment to all individuals with disabilities.”
Courage Kenny Institute hosted farewell event on February 20 which was attended by many friends and colleague despite a winter storm. Tschida also said goodbye February 14 at a MN-CCD legislative kickoff. Tschida has been on the MN-CCD board and led its public policy work for many years.
Tschida was born and raised in St. Paul, and graduated from Macalester College. He and his family lived in St. Paul for many years before moving to Eagan.
In a 2001 interview with Access Press, he described how he sustained a spinal cord injury. He was riding his bicycle to work on September 9, 1993. He doesn’t remember how the accident happened but he flew over the bike’s handlebars and hit a lamppost. It was his sons’ first day of kindergarten.
Prior to his accident, he worked as assistant director of the House of Representatives Public Information Office and edited the Session Weekly magazine. His job was held open and legislative friends raised $12,000 to help with medical and home remodeling costs.
He told Access Press “After my accident, I got frustrated seeing things at the capitol that weren’t happening to benefit people with disabilities. Instead of just writing about the issues, I wanted to get my hands dirty and make a difference. Growing up in a large Catholic family, guilt was certainly part of my mother’s parenting toolbox, and she always used to tell us ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.’ I knew the legislative process, I knew a bunch of people who worked in the legislature… if guys like me aren’t going to advocate, who’s going to do it?”
Tschida left state politics and went to Washington, D.C. as a research fellow at the National Rehabilitation Hospital Center for Health and Disability Research. He also earned a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University, focusing on health care. In 1999 the opportunity to work at Courage Center brought him and his family back to Minnesota. His work has involved research, writing and lobbying at the capitol.
In the Access Press interview, Tschida said, “The disability community is very broad and I would not presume to give anybody advice. What I think is that there needs to be an honest and open debate within the disability community about our differences. The community is not monolithic, and our differences are important. There is a huge difference between having an acquired disability, a congenital disability, a developmental disability, or mental illness, and some folks don’t want to talk about this. But I think that it could be healthy and helpful for the advocacy community and for people with disabilities in general to discuss our differences. It could also be very educational for the able-bodied community. It’s always beneath the surface and it’s something that makes people uncomfortable to talk about, but it will make us stronger. We tend to talk within our circles, but there’s a lot that we can learn from each other and a lot of similarities . . . And differences are okay it can be helpful to acknowledge them.”