An Interview with Catherine Strode
For the past five months, the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council has been under new leadership. Executive Director Joelle Brouner now heads up the Council, consisting of 24 members. Each Council member is appointed by the Governor. Council members fall into three groups: individuals with developmental or intellectual disabilities (I/DD), parents or guardians of people with I/DD, and individuals who work in service systems. Joelle Brouner discusses her vision for the Council’s future work and her goal of creating opportunities for individuals with disabilities to lead lives of their own choosing.
What has motivated you to take on this position?
I believe civic engagement is important. Government is most effective when citizens are interacting with and shaping the way services and supports are processed and provided. Governor-appointed Boards are one of the ways people can influence change. I wanted to be part of helping people with disabilities who may not have an educational background in understanding civic participation. We can make it meaningful and accessible to show people we have to be involved. Another reason why I’m here is that I am a person with a disability. My disability is a developmental disability. My disability meets the federal definition of developmental disability, but doesn’t meet the state definition.* I’ve had the experience of trying to juggle supports and work with systems. I was excited about Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council’s two focus areas: systems advocacy and shaping policy. Those two things together are rich possibilities. Between identifying a community need that I see, being a part of that community myself, and then seeing the opportunity of being of service, I wanted to take on this position of Executive Director.
What background do you bring to the position?
In terms of my background, I worked in the Vocational Rehabilitation Department in Washington State from 2005 to 2013. Then I came to work at the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. After four and a half years there, I wanted to be part of the opportunity of helping people work on issues over a life span. At the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council, we meet babies and older people with disabilities and everybody in between. Disability is a lifetime issue for people and there’s such a range of issues to work on. Employment is an important part of community participation and is an issue I will always work on to help people achieve. Helping parents, siblings, and grandparents who have a member of the family with a disability figure out what the possibilities and opportunities are for that individual. Helping individuals achieve the lives they want.
What did you learn in your first 150 days on the job?
I learned there’s a lot of work to do. There are real gaps in the services and supports available in the community to help people live the life they want to live. It was a positive development that 300 people received comprehensive waivers. However, some are still waiting for those supports and services. I’ve learned when you have met one community, you’ve met one community. I’ve learned the role of local control in the state of Colorado is a big driver in everything from special education, to housing, to the supports and services available. I think that presents an opportunity for Colorado to show localized, evidence based best practices (that could be replicable) that support people whether they live in the front range, a frontier community, or the city. Sometimes it is important that you work to change a specific policy. But what matters most is people and their families, and the life they want to build. I’ve learned we need more focus and attention on the individuality of those folks, not a one size fits all approach.
What is your vision for the Council?
I work for a Board so my vision is just part of the puzzle. Part of my vision is that our five- year planning process will be a mechanism for helping people realize their civil rights and opportunities for civic participation. My vision includes discussions about how to make sure people have the life that they want, instead of the life they know how to access at this time. I don’t have all the answers. What I have is a commitment. What I have is knowing that someone can be born into this life with all kinds of labels and the labels don’t define who that person is, or, what they can achieve. My vision is that there will be a day when there is room for all kinds of people to participate without fear of losing services or resources, or retaliation, I think that takes a systems and a policy fix.
What will you be focusing on during the next 150 days?
We’re looking at our internal policies and practices. We’re looking at how we draw a larger segment of the community to our work. The question isn’t, “Why aren’t more people engaged?” The right question is, “What is it about the way we’re talking and doing business that isn’t engaging?” What could we be doing that shows people they are reflected in our work? How are we going to continue to use our planning process to achieve meaningful change out in the world? We’re answering some big questions. At the same time, we’re trying to meet with people. For every Coloradan, there’s an equal opportunity to leave their mark. That’s what this Council is about. This first year, I am focusing on listening. I’ve been saying, “I want to go small to go big.” We’re going to focus on the small stuff first, the little things, before we start telling Colorado what path to take. We’re asking ourselves, “Are we modeling the kind of practices we want people to replicate?” Right now, we are focusing on developing leadership skills of people with disabilities and their families, including siblings. We are helping people make a successful transition from youth to adulthood. We’re working to end seclusion, restraint, and suspension. Seclusion, restraint and suspension disproportionately affect people with disabilities and people of color with disabilities. Now through the end of our five- year plan in 2021, those are three goals which we are focusing on.
*In Colorado the person must demonstrate that the disability manifested before age twenty-two years, constitutes a substantial disability to the affected individual, and is attributable to an intellectual disability (cognitive or adaptive scores of 69 or lower). ⤴︎
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.