Gail Rosenblum
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Thirty-five years ago, the Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities in the Department of Administration created a groundbreaking advocacy and leadership training program to give people with disabilities and their families the resources and skills to communicate effectively with elected officials.

Since 1987, more than 1,100 self-advocates and family members have graduated from Partners in Policymaking in Minnesota. Another 29,000 people have gained confidence and agency as participants around the world.

As the 40th cohort of Minnesotans begins the program this month, we check in with Colleen Wieck, executive director of the Governor's Council for 41 years, who reflects on early challenges and considerable progress.

Q: The pivotal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, yet Minnesota became a national leader in disabilities rights earlier — in 1987 — with the formation of Partners in Policymaking. What do you remember about that early effort?

A: Minnesota's leadership actually began much earlier — in September of 1950 — when 90 parents from around the U.S. traveled to Minneapolis to form a parent association. Governor Luther Youngdahl spoke about rights — 40 years before the ADA. There have been many bipartisan advancements in services and supports initiated in Minnesota and then adopted nationally. Our council has archived both Minnesota and national disability history at mn.gov/mnddc.

Q: The spark for Partners in Policymaking occurred in 1986, during a hearing chaired by U.S. Senator David Durenberger. Please say more about the surprising witness who grabbed everyone's attention.

A: After listening to hours of testimony about Medicaid reform by professionals, the final witness was a mother from International Falls. She was the most important person to testify because her family was most affected by the outcome of the hearing. It was obvious at that moment that we could prepare individuals and family members to tell their stories and engage with elected officials. We could teach people to be effective advocates through a series of training events in a safe environment.

Q: And how well you've done that! One week ago, you launched your 40th eight-weekend session, which will end next May. Who is participating and what will they learn over the next many months?

A: Included are 35 individuals with disabilities and family members. Our curriculum (no cost to participants) is based upon 25 competencies, including learning about disability history, inclusive education, how to engage in civil conversations, creating a vision, supported housing, assistive technology and how to effectively communicate with officials, because etiquette is important.

Q: Etiquette?

A: Etiquette is important in addressing public officials. You can be more informal with local officials who you might see in a grocery store. Formality in using proper titles increases when addressing members of the Legislature and Congress. We want our Partners graduates to show respect to elected officials, and so we provide information on how to communicate effectively and follow protocol in written communication, telephone calls, office visits or during hearings.

Q: How are your participants selected?

A: Selection of a class is based on a number of criteria. Parents of young children with developmental disabilities, along with self-advocates with a wide range of disabilities, are the primary target groups. Current participation in advocacy organizations isn't necessary. Participants should reflect the makeup of the general population of Minnesota, in terms of racial and ethnic representation, and efforts should be made to achieve a gender balance. All parts of the state should be considered in terms of geography and economic diversity — everyone brings a different perspective and adds another element to the shared learning and networking that happens within each class.

Q: And how do you structure your eight sessions?

A: The curriculum is sequential, with each weekend session laying the foundation for the next. Each weekend, critical concepts and key terms related to one or two topics are introduced and one or more national speakers discuss the latest thinking around their area of expertise. Because the training is competency-based, opportunities to apply these concepts through small group exercises are incorporated into each session.

Q: A key factor in your success is that the program is led not just by politicians, but also by participants. Why does that seem to work best?

A: We select both national and state faculty members who bring best practice expertise and alignment to the values of the Developmental Disabilities Act (DDA). The highest rated session is usually a trip to the state Capitol because of the outstanding former and current legislators who serve as coaches and mentors. But we also emphasize small group activities led by the partners themselves so that they can practice leadership skills.

Q: What have some participants gone on to do, either officially (in policy roles, for example) or simply in how they parent with more confidence?

A: After graduation, participants might engage by joining advocacy groups, presenting at conferences and communicating with local, state and federal officials. Individuals also apply to join governor-appointed councils, boards and commissions. Other graduates return to school and seek better jobs. Some graduates run for public office.

Q: You've been on the forefront of this program since its inception. How has it evolved?

A: Here are two examples: In 1987, success was a student with developmental disabilities being integrated in one or two classes. Today we advocate for inclusive education and enrollment in postsecondary education. In 1987, action alerts were mailed through the U.S. Postal Service. Today, social media provides instant messaging about pending legislation to a statewide network of advocates. The council also developed an app called Telling Your Story, which individuals and family members can use to write out their personal story, upload a photograph and then forward to elected officials.

Q: What remains the biggest challenge for families?

A: Families tell us that they still don't know their rights, what services are available, and how to find help.

Q: What are the most heartening changes in how people with disabilities are treated and how they are living their lives?

A: In 1987, there were over 1,000 people with developmental disabilities living in state institutions. That same year, our council published "A New Way of Thinking," in which we recommended that people with developmental disabilities should live, learn, work and enjoy life in the community. In 1990, the ADA passed, based on the goals of inclusion, full participation, economic self-sufficiency and equality of opportunity for all people with disabilities. In July of 2000, the last resident left the large state hospital system. Thousands of other Minnesotans with developmental disabilities have benefited from changes in federal and state laws. There has been great progress made during the past 60 years in public attitudes and understanding, as measured in our latest attitude survey of Minnesotans posted on our website.