Turning Assumptions Around

An interview with Alex Bartolic, Director of Disability Services Interview done with Tim Benjamin as well.   This past year, […]

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An interview with Alex Bartolic, Director of Disability Services

Interview done with Tim Benjamin as well.


This past year, Alex Bartolic took over as the director of Disability Services. Last week, Access Press had the opportunity to speak with Bartolic about how she got to this point, and where we need to be headed.

TB: How did you get into this field?

AB: I went to school at University of Minnesota Duluth. I was only going to go there for a couple of years and then I was going to come down to the “real U.” Well, I didn’t make it back—and I got a great education. It was very personalized. And it was fun. Actually, I ended up staying up there for about fourteen years; I started teaching as a special education teacher. And I worked in the Cloquet area because I heard they were going to have open classrooms. It was to be the first time that they would serve students with significant disabilities in that school setting.

I wanted that classroom. That was exactly what I had gone to school for; I was very excited. At that time all ages in the public school were in there, four to twenty-one years of age. It was quite an opportunity to really understand that school was a very artificial setting if you didn’t have a community, a support that could help the family. When I heard about this new thing called “waivers for home and community-based services,” it seemed like a way to really help families with disabilities get the support they needed for life outside of school. From there, I went to work in Carlton County as a case manager for waivered services. It was a very exciting time, and we really made differences in people lives.

CS: Could you have imagined in ‘82 that you’d be doing what you’re doing now?

AB: Absolutely not! In fact, it was funny that when I was at the county doing case management, I thought, boy, the dream job would be to be an independent case manager. I love working with people and problem solving. Sometimes now it feels like I’ve stepped off a cliff: what am I going to do? But this is a great opportunity to improve our society.

CS: It sounds like you’re aspirations evolved. What do you aspire to now?

AB: You know, in some ways I go back to 1980, 1981, and 1982 when people were first talking about wanting to do something different than just institutional living. I think about all of the promises of home and community-based services. We’ve made huge strides. Huge strides! In some ways I don’t know if we’ve achieved all of those promises. And I’d really like to see more of those promises become reality. We still have a long way to go to really find out what people have for their own dreams and how to support them in ways that will make that a reality. So I think it’s time to take it to that next level.

CS: What’s your exact title today?

AB: I’m the Director of Disability Services and HIV/AIDS Division. I’m the director of two divisions. I report to Loren Coleman, who is the Assistant Commissioner for Continuing Care Administration. And the Department Commissioner is Cal Ludeman. [Laughter] I’m lower level.

CS: Do you see a connection between aging and disability?

AB: When people get older, often they have needs that are similar to people with disabilities. I think what we have to search for is how to support all people, as a society, addressing all people’s needs, whether or not they use public services. Changing our communities will benefit everyone—having good transportation, having sidewalks and the ability to be mobile, having a variety of services that can be available to help people regardless of their age or the label.

TB: How important do you think it is for leaders in the disability community to have a disability themselves?

AB: I hope I could be effective without having a disability. But I don’t think I can do it on my own; it needs to be an exchange—a partnership. I truly feel that I am a public servant. I am not here to pursue my own vision. I am here to work with people and learn what we need to do from people who are living and breathing life with a disability. That’s what we need to be doing. I hope I can be effective without a disability and that people would give me chance.

TB: When talking about disability, often the first thing that comes up is transportation. Transportation is important. Education is important. All social services are important at their own level. But what people need first is personal care. If we can’t get out of bed, having educational opportunity, having transportation opportunity, having all of the other wonderful things that are offered doesn’t help any.

AB: I agree—making sure somebody is there to give a hand—however much, however little. Some people have someone in their lives (family member, neighbor) that helps them, but they just need to figure out how to financially reimburse that person. I think the consumer-directed, self-directed option is a great approach–give someone the flexibility to pay what they need to get the services they need. When we look at the workforce, I think we need to consider benefits and livable wages. People need health care benefits that can sustain them. This work needs to become a career. I think we have to look more broadly at how to really support these direct support workers.

CS: As the state’s population ages, how are we going to help prepare that group as they begin to experience some form of disability?

AB: Well you know, some of that preparation is helping businesses think of the raw potential of the work force, and what they need done. This shift is part of the focus of the Pathway to Employment grant, a federal Medicaid infrastructure grant. [Pathways is] really trying to change the entire infrastructure, in state, so that employers and businesses appreciate and recognize people with disabilities as a valued workforce that they can work with. It is not a matter of “what do you need to do to help someone work.” It is a matter of “this is a valuable workforce,” and “what do you need to do to make yourself an employer that people can work for.” It’s turning the assumption completely around.

We also need to help people who might be relying on PCA services and medical assistance for healthcare so they can work and still maintain their benefits. There are ways of still being a part of the workforce without having to lose the support that you need. We need to keep looking at all the problems from many angles.

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Mental Wellness