Smiling child

BIG IDEAS – Lynn Breedlove’s Remarks at DRW Banquet

At our 30th anniversary celebration, Executive Director Lynn Breedlove described the BIG IDEAS that inspired DRW’s beginning and continue to inspire us today:

In preparing for this evening, I’ve been thinking about three questions:

- Why do I love working here so much, and what has kept me here so long?

- What is the bond that unifies this eclectic bunch of DRW staff who come from such different backgrounds and have such varied styles?

- Why is it that DRW has had the major impact that Governor Doyle and Congresswoman Gwen Moore referred to in their commendations for DRW?

I know the answer. We have BIG IDEAS at DRW and I love that about the place. And we back up those big ideas with ACTION. We have staff with the skills and determination to fight for these ideas until they come true. And they’re not scared off by the fact that it may take decades to accomplish.

When DRW started 30 years ago, the original BIG IDEA was that every person with a disability should have the opportunity to live as rich and full a life as anyone else in Wisconsin. We didn’t think of that idea first, but we certainly embraced it.

We’ve added a lot of other BIG IDEAS since then, and we didn’t think of all those by ourselves either. Some came to us from people with disabilities, and some came from people and organizations in this room.

We have the BIG IDEA that no one should have to live in an institution against their will. So we jump on every institution closing, downsizing, relocation and diversion program the state comes up with. We have DRW staff on the closing teams; we help residents in the discharge planning process; and we put pressure on the counties if we need to. In other words, we do whatever it takes to get people out and into quality community arrangements.

We have a BIG IDEA that no child with a disability should have to attend a segregated school where there are only students with disabilities. When DRW started, there were 16 segregated schools in Wisconsin—now there are 3. We work with parents, local advocates and school administrators. We go to court if we need to. In 1983, Patrick McBride was 12 years old. When Waukesha County offered his parents a segregated school placement, he and his family had the same big idea we have: No thanks. So they came to DRW for help, we teamed up with them and we won the case. Patrick went to regular middle school and high school and graduated with his class. His mom sent us his high school graduation picture with a big smile, wearing his school jacket. Patrick’s 37 years old now, living in the community and he’s here tonight with his family! Patrick, please stand so we can thank you for your trailblazer role.

We have the BIG IDEA that people with disabilities need public benefits to make ends meet and get basic health care. We believe if people are eligible for these benefits they have a right to receive them. With funding from the state we provide attorney backup to all the Disability Benefit Specialists in Wisconsin, and we’ve created a formidable Benefits Team with some of the best benefits lawyers in the state.

After the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, we got the BIG IDEA that people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their disability anymore, whether that’s in housing, employment, voting, transportation, or anything else. So we take cases in all those areas (at no charge to our clients), and we have advocates who know those areas of the law, and we usually win. And breakthroughs that make it in the news, like the victory in the Chuck E. Cheese case, send a message to employers and the public that people with disabilities are in the workforce to stay.

When we realized that increasing numbers of people with mental illness were ending up in jails and prisons, we got the BIG IDEA that they should be treated fairly, receive appropriate treatment and health care, and have access to job training or any other programs that other inmates participate in. So we established a DRW presence in Taycheedah, Columbia and Southern Oaks, and we got to know key administrators in the Department of Corrections, and we’ve made some real progress.

When it became clear that the Milwaukee Public School system was failing to adequately serve its students with disabilities and there were widespread violations of federal law, we got the BIG IDEA that DRW was going to do something about it. After many individual cases and meetings with MPS officials, we realized the system wasn’t changing on its own and DPI wasn’t going to make them change either. So we filed a class action on behalf of all 17,000 students in the district. And we’re well on the way to winning that case.

After trying for years to serve northern Wisconsin by sending DRW advocates up there from Madison and Milwaukee, we realized that people with disabilities and their families up north were continuing to get the short end of the stick from state government and state organizations. So our friends and Board members from northern Wisconsin pushed us toward the BIG IDEA that we needed a real DRW office up there. So we opened a 2-person office in Rice Lake in 2003, and we’ll have 5 staff there soon. And we’re there to stay.

A few years ago we realized that women with disabilities experience sexual assault and domestic violence a lot more than everyone else, and when it happens to them they often don’t get the help they need. So we got the BIG IDEA that we wanted to change that. We already had some friends in the sexual assault and domestic violence system, and we optimistically assumed that they would be willing to form a partnership with us to make their programs more disability-friendly. That turned out to be true. DRW wrote a federal grant to pursue this strategy and we’ve been at it for almost 6 years now. And it’s working.

The last BIG IDEA is one of the most important. To support the work of all these advocates and achieve all the other big ideas, and create a place where it feels good to work, we need an agency that runs well in its management, fiscal operations, personnel, IT, etc. So we created an Administrative Team with excellent staff and a high degree of professionalism, people who have both the skills to do all these things well and a personal commitment to the broader DRW mission. It’s made a big difference, and it’s one of the reasons good people come to DRW and stay here.

It’s hard to describe the positive energy that exists in an agency where people show up every day to work on these BIG IDEAS. As the Director, it doesn’t really feel like I’m “running the place.” It feels more like we’re all riding the wave that we (Board, staff, and people with disabilities) have created in our shared commitment to these ideas. And that’s an amazing feeling. When you’re been here 30 years (or 28 in my case), you’ve been here for a generation. You have the privilege of working with people who have dedicated their entire careers to these big ideas. And that’s an inspiring thing to see.

My final point is twofold. Not only did we not think of all these BIG IDEAS by ourselves. Whatever progress has been made over these 30 years, we achieved it through joint efforts with other organizations in Wisconsin. That’s why tonight we’re doing something we’ve never done before: we singled out ten ally organizations in Wisconsin to receive DRW Ally Awards. Each of these organizations shared some of the big ideas with us, and more importantly, they took action alongside DRW advocates to make these ideas happen. We’re grateful for that and we won’t forget it.