Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk

I Just Go and Learn and Give: Self-Advocates Serving on Boards in Vermont


Johnette Hartnett is Assistant Research Professor, University of Vermont, Burlington.

Phil Smith is Executive Director, Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council, Waterbury.

“You can make a difference on the board.” That’s what self-advocate Patty Grassette says about her role on the board of directors for the agency that provides her services and supports. “It started when a friend who was head of the agency asked me to be on the board and help things out.” Since then, Patty’s been part of the group overseeing Sterling Area Services, a small nonprofit agency based in Morrisville, Vermont, for several years. For her, it’s an opportunity to give something back to the community that has come to accept her as a valued, contributing member: “I bring to the board my background; there are few people on the board in wheelchairs.”

Many self-advocates in Vermont serve on various boards and committees, including those within the system of services for people with disabilities. Some sit on the statewide Developmental Services Program Standing Committee; others on the Board of Managers of Green Mountain Self-Advocates, a statewide self-advocacy organization; and still more sit on the state Developmental Disabilities Council and boards of directors and standing committees for area designated agencies. Vermont’s disability services system has made a firm commitment to ensuring that self-advocates and family members have a place at the decision-making table. When the state went through a systemwide restructuring in the mid-1990s, participants in the change process began to recognize the importance of including people who receive services in system governance structures. As rules were written implementing Vermont’s Developmental Disabilities Act, passed in 1996, language was inserted requiring a majority of members on local agency boards of directors and standing committees be made up of people who receive services and their families. Agencies began to actively recruit self-advocates and family members in their area to serve in these and other leadership roles. Patty describes her role on the board: “I need to teach other self-advocates, providers, directors. Because they are helping me, they have to learn from me.”

Born and raised in Vermont, Patty lived for seven years at Brandon Training School, the state’s now-closed institution for people with developmental disabilities. Since 1997, she’s had her own apartment, which she calls “Patty’s Pad.” She works part-time as a facilitator for the Vermont Self-Determination Project, and has served on several local and statewide committees and task forces. As a board member, she attends monthly meetings. Patty says that she gets along well with others on the board: “I find them very friendly, helpful, always willing to listen.” For her, it’s a way to make a contribution to the community, and an opportunity to take part in the governance of a system she relies on to support her. Patty laughs when she describes why she likes this volunteer role: “I just go, and learn, and give.”

Still, there are times, she says, that “I need help when there are things I don’t understand. Sometimes I go in early and [the Executive Director] goes over things with me.” Vermont has learned a lot about supporting people with disabilities to be real participants on governing boards. Three years ago, the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council developed a curriculum and guide calledBoards of the Future! A Participatory Guide for Building Inclusive Board Membership. The curriculum helps new and seasoned board members learn about board service so that it is truly participatory and empowering for all.

Since this curriculum has been in place, boards in Vermont have learned to provide accommodations to all their members that allow them to participate more fully. Through a mentorship process, boards can bridge to becoming a stronger, more knowledgeable group. Sometimes, modifications are simple: arranging the meeting room differently or introducing everyone at the beginning of meetings or even just holding the meeting at the same place and time every month. Usually, boards can decide for themselves what changes to make to ensure that everyone has an equal role.

For Patty, there’s a bottom line. She feels strongly that she has much to offer this and other groups with whom she works. Through her role as a board member, she has come to see herself as a leader, one in which traditional roles are redefined, and that implies an obligation for both herself and others: “I’m the teacher. I have to teach people – they have to learn from all the self-advocates. [I bring] background, experience.” Patty wants to branch out, try something new, maybe “serve on a board that helps children.” Her background and experience – along with her exuberant laughter and good humor – have made her a respected and trusted part of the community in which she lives.

Johnette Hartnett is Assistant Research Professor, University of Vermont, Burlington. Phil Smith is Executive Director, Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council, Waterbury. He may be reached at 802/241-2612. Patty Grassette is a Self-Advocate Facilitator with the Vermont Self-Determination Project, Morrisville.