Speaking up for Community-Based Supports
Cliff Poetz, as interviewed by Julie Kramme
Cliff Poetz at his home in Plymouth, Minnesota
In the past, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) had few choices about where they lived. Hundreds of thousands of people lived in institutions in the 1960s. People who lived with their families received few supports. Direct support professionals (DSPs) who worked in institutions supported many people at once. There was little time for individualized support. Many people advocated for more community-based support options. As a result of this, more people today live in their own homes in the community. More people have choices about where they live and the supports they receive. One strong advocate for community-based supports is Cliff Poetz. Poetz has a nearly 50-year career in advocacy. Here he shares about his career, and he offers some advice for DSPs.
Poetz grew up living with his family. He moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota as a young adult. He could not receive the medical care he needed unless he lived in an institution. In Minneapolis, he lived in Portland Residence, a 100-person institution. Living in an institution meant signing in and out when he wanted to go out in the community. "There was little freedom to come and go," Poetz said. This could mean missing out on activities or time with his family. "If [staff at the institution] said I needed to be back at a certain time, I had to be back at that time."
Cliff at Portland Residence in the early 1970s
Poetz noted that DSPs at the time were remarkable since they were supporting so many people at once. Many people in the institution were stressed out, and this often led to difficult behaviors. Further, the building Poetz lived in had no elevator. He lived on the third floor. People were sometimes at the mercy of DSPs to help them if they wanted to go up or down stairs. It was difficult then for DSPs to support anyone in an individualized way. But, Poetz said, "this was not the focus of supports at that time."
In the 1970s, Poetz spoke out publicly against use of the "R" word. He and two others founded a group called, "Telling it Like It Is." They traveled throughout the state. They talked about discrimination. They worked to change some of the rules in the institution, such as having more freedom to come and go as he pleased. But Poetz also spoke out against institutional living. "For me," he said, "it meant independence and being able to live in the community." In the late 1970’s, Poetz helped start a group called Advocating Change Together (http://selfadvocacy.org/ ). He also founded People First Minnesota in the 1980s. He and others who were part of these partnerships helped shape legislation and policies to close Minnesota’s institutions. Poetz and others were also successful in getting grave markers placed for people who had died in institutions in Minnesota.
Poetz’s advocacy efforts in Minnesota prompted an invitation in 1973 from Senator Edward Kennedy who asked Poetz to testify at a hearing in Washington, DC. The hearing was on the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act. He was the first person with an intellectual disability ever to testify before Congress.
The hearing audience had seen the documentary, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace the morning before his speech. They were troubled as they listened to his experiences. He noted, "you could hear a pin drop. They knew we needed to do something." Yet some still resisted his ideas. He said, "People, including parents, often want to push back to protect people. But this can keep people from their dreams. We have come a long way from where we were. We don’t want to go back to institutional care."
Cliff and his realtor Cindy Johnson signing papers at the closing on his condominium.
As a result of his advocacy, Poetz moved from the institution into subsidized housing. Then, with help from the Arc Minnesota, Poetz was able to buy his own condominium.
For the last 17 years, Poetz has worked as a community liaison for the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota. He continues to speak out for people to have the right and opportunity to own their own homes (https://ici.umn.edu/content/what-drives-cliff-poetz). In 2010, Poetz bought a condo of his own in Plymouth, Minnesota. "It feels good to have my own place and come and go as I please." However, he notes that many people don’t yet have this opportunity. He asserts, "we still have a lot of work to do."
When policies threaten the chance for people to live in the community, Poetz sees this as a call to action. "When congressmen hear from many people, they realize they need to think about an issue." Poetz believes these are fights we can win. But, "DSPs need to speak out if they see it happening. One thing we know is that if we don’t speak out, we can go back to the old ways quickly. The more we speak up about inclusion, the more our society recognizes how harmful it is to go back to the old ways." DSPs today have the chance to get to know people they support. You support peoples’ choices about where they live. You support people in their jobs and to make connections with others. You can build partnerships with the people you support to help them achieve their dreams. DSPs are a very important piece in supporting people to have choices in the community.
One thing we know is that if we don’t speak out, we can go back to the old ways quickly. The more we speak up about inclusion the more our society recognizes how harmful it is to go back to the old ways." – Cliff Poetz