When Dawn Howard was two years old, her parents were told that she would not likely have “any intelligible speech.” But Dawn, who was born with slight cerebral palsy, says “I had a pushy mother, who did find a speech therapist who would work with me.” She pauses. “And I am so thankful for that.” From preschool on, Dawn was fully included in school, though was often the only physically disabled child in the class.
As an adult, Dawn passed the national exam to become an occupational therapist, but found that her cerebral palsy made it difficult to physically transfer or lift her clients. So she went back to school for library science and worked as a librarian for 13 years. But during her last two years working in the Denver public library, Dawn says she was “discriminated against, bullied and nitpicked out of a job.”
Suddenly unemployed, Dawn took a 10-week disability advocacy class through the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (CCDC), a state disability rights organization that advocates for social justice for people with all types of disabilities. Dawn quickly became involved in CCDC’s work as a volunteer, and within a year, was hired on as a community organizer.
CCDC is run by and for “people with all types of disabilities: from Down Syndrome to Cerebral Palsy, Spina Bifida, Autism, people with brain injuries, people with mental illness, those who are blind or deaf, and much more.”
As the organization’s motto goes, “Nothing about us without us.”
Shannon Secrest came to CCDC by way of a different path. Thirteen years ago, she began the process of accessing resources for her now 16-year-old son. Considered “medically complicated” and with 12 different diagnoses, Shannon’s son qualified for myriad care benefits and resources, but Shannon encountered barriers in each system she navigated—from education to healthcare to social security.
Frustrated, she went back to school and joined every relevant committee, council, and commission she could. Like Dawn, Shannon enrolled in the CCDC disability advocacy class. Last year, she was brought on board as a full-time staff member. She’s also back in school full-time, getting a Master’s in Public Administration, with a focus on policy analysis.
“Quite honestly,” says Shannon. “I just got tired of being told no. Or that I was just a mom and didn’t understand fiscal responsibility or legislation or school finance.”
As an organization, CCDC engages in both individual advocacy (“the process of assisting an individual member to correct a problem with the system such as obtaining or maintaining a benefit or service or solving a problem with a service provider, landlord, employer, etc); and systemic advocacy (“the process of changing rules or laws that interfere with the rights of all people with disabilities”).
Those wishing to become a certified advocate and to represent CCDC are required to complete the organization’s 10-week Disability Advocacy Training Class. Offered in-person or remotely, (and as an accredited opportunity with the University of Denver) the class is open to anyone “interested in learning the basics of advocacy…or anyone looking for additional skills necessary to work in the field of disability services, advocacy, community organizing, the legislative process, or civil rights law.”
Part of the “beauty” of the class, says Shannon, is in the diversity of the participants. “Not only that we’re advocating for people in our community, but also training up allies and accomplices to understand the work we do.”
After the class, Dawn works one-on-one with graduates to strategize where they’d like to devote their time and energy as advocates. “I say, okay you’ve had a good overview in the class. Now, where does your passion lie?” explains Dawn. Sometimes students are particularly interested in transportation, Medicaid, or housing, so Dawn will suggest committees or councils they might join on behalf of CCDC.
“It’s a very targeted way to do relational organizing,” says Shannon. “We’re really trying to tailor it to their desires, rather than trying to fit it into the whole. We’re not going to be prescriptive. We want you to do what ignites your passion.”