Many stories of accomplishment have come out of Minnesota’s groundbreaking Partners in Policymaking Program, which is celebrating 35 years of helping people with disabilities and their family members become self-advocates. An anniversary celebration was held recently in Bloomington.
Past Partners graduates, faculty, staff and supporters gathered to celebrate the impact of the program, reminisce and get reacquainted. The 35th Anniversary event featured “Inclusion,” a new exhibit that follows the history of people with developmental disabilities from the 1900s through today.
The program’s roots are with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities (MNCDD) and efforts in 1986 toward passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Partners program began in 1987, three years before the ADA was signed into law in 1990.
The program is now used by people around the world who seek to become effective advocates for themselves and their family members.
Council member and longtime program supporter Dan Reed recalls a powerful story from the parent of a young man with disabilities. The parent was speaking to a legislator about the thousands of dollars spent to educate his son from kindergarten through high school. He said, “My son has graduated to the couch in my basement. How come he can’t continue to have a job, continue on in education? There is no place to go.”
Such conversations “tend to wake up anyone with a heart,” said Reed.
“Many graduates describe Partners as life changing and empowering, the same words they use to describe the profound impact the ADA had on their lives,” said Colleen Wieck, executive director of MNCDD. She was extensively involved in creating the program.
Created to train disability self-advocates and parents of young children with disabilities, Partners teaches history and advocacy skills to help people participate in policymaking in a meaningful and effective way. The program has helped more than 1,100 people work toward transformation in civil rights, integration, employment and other areas. It acknowledges the turbulent history of marginalization and exclusion experienced by people with disabilities and their families, and equips people to effectively influence public policy for the better.
Reed said Minnesota leads the way in innovation and supporting people who may be labeled as different but bring significant gifts and talents to society. “The way the program evolved out of the council is remarkable,” said Reed.
Speaking of the pride Partners in Policymaking graduates have in their accomplishments, Reed said graduates often identity themselves by class number. Class members retain strong ties.
“It’s a bond that unifies and really seems unbreakable,” he said. “It takes the ‘Oh, woe is me’ and makes it ‘Oh no, it’s me’ where my family and I matter.”
Before the program began, people with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities had no place to turn to turn, reed said. They had no place to learn and grow as community members.
The innovative leadership program meets over eight weekends each year for a total of 128 hours. Participants are selected with the goal of seeking different perspectives, with classes having a mix of people across with varied backgrounds, from different regions of the state and different economic levels.
The curriculum is sequential, with each weekend session laying the foundation for the next. Critical concepts and key terms are introduced for one or two topics each session. National speakers discuss the latest thinking around their area of expertise. Class members learn and practice leadership and advocacy skills.
Reed calls the program “masterful.” Partners organizers bring in legislators, judges, county commissioners, congressional staff and other people who class members parents have come into contact with or will be contacting in the future.
“People become better citizens,” said Reed. “They find out what can be changed and how it can be changed. People with disabilities have dreams and aspirations, and they have rights, just like everybody else.” Public officials are invited to teach. Often they learn far more from the class members, who share their stories.
During the first 10 years of the Partners program, people with disabilities were still coming out of the state institutions and becoming acquainted with others in society.
Reed vividly recalls meeting with one family and telling them that he believed their brother with disabilities was really smart. Family members started sobbing. “They said, that when we were young, he was the smartest, and then they sent him away.”
Change has come again in the COVID-19 era. There are new crises in the disability service system, said Reed. Because of the workforce shortage, thousands of people with developmental disabilities are not receiving the supports and services they need to have a quality life.
“Now more than ever, people with developmental disabilities and their family members must become advocates,” Reed said.