An Interview with Catherine Strode
Bob McGill advocates for Spanish-speaking families of students with disabilities. His work for students with disabilities from immigrant families involves assisting Latino children and their families in the areas of education, health and immigration. In the following interview, Catherine Strode profiles Bob’s work for AdvocacyDenver. She also discusses with him the potential impact of the election results on the students he serves.
As a bilingual advocate, what is your role?
“About 85 to 90 per cent of my clients are Denver Public Schools students with disabilities who come from immigrant backgrounds. English is usually the second language of the student and often not the language spoken at home. That means mainly people from immigrant backgrounds who are Spanish speakers. My hope is that AdvocacyDenver will continue to grow in a way that allows us to take on more Somali clients, Vietnamese speaking clients, and people from other language backgrounds. My clients are Pre K to High School and have any disability as defined under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Colorado Law on Disabilities and Education as well. We have students who have very profound disabilities. We have students with emotional disabilities. I just picked up another client with Down Syndrome who was born in the United States and left with his family when he was just a little guy. He’s now ten years old and recently back and has a lot of catch up to do. He’s fairly typical of our clients.”
What gaps in services do these students face?
“Students with disabilities, whether they’re immigrants or not, have a right to free and appropriate education until the age of 21. After that, students with disabilities who are immigrants, much like students without disabilities, find their options pretty limited. There is a very high legal status bar that kids have to meet in order to qualify for Medicaid. That’s one of the biggest gaps for services. The main gap I deal with has to do with life once a student graduates. Up until graduation, the education provided to an immigrant should look exactly like that of a citizen. Once those students graduate, then those services look very different. When we start talking about employment or supported employment, health care, independent living resources, Community Center Board resources, or any of the other areas of an adult person’s life with disabilities, the opportunities are not the same. We call it ‘cliff.’ Graduation is like walking off a cliff. Supports that are available to most people with disabilities are not available to a huge section of other people with disabilities. That is who AdvocacyDenver is trying to attend to: defining that gap, and trying to narrow that gap.”
Why is this a population AdvocacyDenver is targeting?
“AdvocacyDenver’s focus on students with disabilities from immigrant families is in line with our overall principle that people are defined by much more than their disability. They are defined by their many abilities, social situations and accomplishments. They also participate in a variety of other marginalized groups and face barriers as people with disabilities in those groups. We represent working class people with disabilities, people of color with disabilities, women and girls with disabilities. In so far as they affect people with disabilities, the social issues that affect these groups are disability rights issues. AdvocacyDenver concentrates on the whole person, including the person’s Immigration status. There’s a special need for advocacy on the part of families who speak limited English and who, by law, don’t enjoy the same rights as citizens with disabilities. The task of advocacy is to ensure that all people participate meaningfully. In Spanish, we call this “voz y voto” (voice and vote). When local or national institutions limit people’s participation, say, in IEP planning or the job market, the task of advocacy is to fix that situation.”
What will be the impact of the election results on students with disabilities?
“Students who benefit from deferred action for childhood arrival (DACA) get a work permit, a social security number. They’re eligible to go to work, participate in vocational rehabilitation supports, and attend college. Their status is certainly in question. It only took an Executive Order to provide for that status and it can be rescinded just as easily. I think that is the place where we are first going to notice the effect on people with disabilities from immigrant backgrounds. There might be other effects. We don’t know yet. We only know what the President Elect has shown his attitude to be toward people with disabilities and toward immigrants.”
How can the community improve their support of immigrant students with disabilities?
“I’m really delighted to work in a city that has such a rich tradition of disability community organization and immigrant organization. But I find that neither community has a whole lot to do with the other. I think that is a serious lapse in community organization in the city. I see a lot of potential when these two groups, who have done so much independently of each other, can get together. Two groups of people that are good getting together, need to get together.”
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.