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Dawn Howard Thinks You Should Be More Like an Octopus

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Photo by Joe Mahoney

By Kristin Jones

Dawn Howard is a community organizer for the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (CCDC), an organization run by and for people with disabilities. As part of her work for CCDC, Howard is also a leader in a statewide effort, funded by The Colorado Trust, to build a diverse and durable field of advocates who are working together to advance health and equality in the state.

Tell me about your disability.

I have slight cerebral palsy that I’ve had since I was born. It affects my speech, my balance. I have a hand tremor when I do things, and a lack of coordination.

Do you remember first becoming aware that you had a disability?

I don’t remember a specific “aha moment,” but I know that first grade was incredibly difficult. My speech was much more impacted than it is today. I was the only disabled child in the classroom in 1973, and I remember only being allowed to be the dog when we played “Little House on the Prairie.” And I remember running home crying on the day that my teacher put me back in reading groups because I could not pronounce the words.

How did growing up with a disability affect who you are and how you see the world?

I think it gave me a lot of compassion. It also helped me become a very hard worker. I laugh because I started speech therapy when I was totally non-verbal at 30 months old. I think I learned how to work before I even knew what work meant, because I had speech therapy three times a week. It took me six months to even say the word “me.” At two, my parents were told that I would probably be totally non-verbal for life. And thankfully my parents, who had been in the Peace Corps and were young, did not believe that.

Do you think that has an influence on how you react when people say something is impossible?

Yes. I don’t take “no” very easily. Because CCDC is an organization run by and for people with disabilities, my coworkers have very significant disabilities. And we all function like professionals. We’re all doing things that—I think most people would be amazed. We have the capabilities; why not?

Because I’m working in the community and organization that I am, I’ve gone from saying I have mild cerebral palsy to slight cerebral palsy. I know that compared to people with very significant disabilities, my cerebral palsy affects me very slightly—even though a lot of the general population still hears my speech and, once or twice a month, I know that somebody thinks that I am intellectually disabled because of how I speak. That infuriates me, but I have to live with it and gently teach people.

When did you get involved in advocacy and activism?

I’ve had to advocate for myself for all my life. But community organizing has been totally different and really rewarding. It was really when I started volunteering with CCDC in the spring of 2014 that I became involved in advocacy, helping other people advocate for themselves.

What’s the most rewarding part of being a community organizer?

Watching people develop as leaders and seeing them find their passion. Once people find their passion, it’s exciting to see what they can do.

For instance, a woman took our advocacy class—she’s a woman who is blind—and she became involved in doing housing advocacy. Now she’s been asked to do door-to-door canvassing to get out the word about the importance of housing. She says, “I’m willing to do it if I can go with someone else.” She’s willing to do anything I ask her to do if it’s about housing.

Last year, you were arrested and went to jail for joining a protest in Senator Cory Gardner’s office against proposed cuts to Medicaid, which ultimately failed to pass Congress. Was it worth it?

Absolutely! I am very glad that I participated because I believe it brought more media attention to this issue. Too few people understand home and community services, which allow people with Medicaid to receive care in the community instead of in a nursing home, and how important it is for people with disabilities who live in Colorado.

I can’t imagine having our IT manager Jose in a nursing home, or our attorney Kevin Williams in a nursing home. It was worth it to spend 58 hours in a room, and then 30 hours in jail, to keep Jose and Kevin out of a nursing home.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing people in Colorado right now?

We have to be really cognizant of the needs of people living near or in poverty, with all of the attacks from this current administration. My heart is geared toward the incredible challenges that people with disabilities face, and the need to be proactive as much as we can, just to keep what we have.

I’m talking about people trying to live in Colorado in 2018 on between $750 and $1,100 a month [in Social Security insurance and disability benefits]. That’s not a lot of money.

With one-bedroom apartments on average costing $1,300 a month in Denver, imagine having less than about 60 percent of that for your total income, and major waitlists for Section 8 housing. I know of a man who is a wonderful advocate, living out of his car because he refuses to live in a bug-infested Section 8 apartment. And I don’t blame him. Nobody should have to live in a substandard apartment.

What needs to be done?

A lot of people need to be educated and understand what really happens, and how little some people are trying to survive on. And I point the finger at myself four years ago. I had no clue. I have always been able to work.

You’ve been very involved in building a field of health equity advocates around the state. What can other advocates learn from the disability community?

Forty years ago, 19 people with disabilities took a major risk and said, “We are tired of talking to you, RTD. The buses won’t be moving until you agree that we taxpayers that use wheelchairs can ride RTD buses.” And they chained electric wheelchairs to RTD buses and closed down Colfax and Broadway [in Denver] and sparked a transportation revolution. RTD agreed. And that encouraged people around the country to do what Denver had done. And then the [Americans with Disabilities Act] in 1990, 12 years later, made it so that public transportation had to be accessible. And the movement for accessible transportation has spread around the world.

There are a lot of lessons there. The importance of learning from other groups. The disability community used tactics that people of color had used. And it’s incredibly important to realize that some of those 19 people were able to plan and think, and some of them couldn’t read or write. So people of all levels of education and ability can be involved in this fight. They were [involved] 40 years ago, and they need to be today.

What’s the next step for achieving health equity in Colorado?

There can’t be just one step. We have to be like octopuses, with our arms in all kinds of different struggles, so we are calling other people to be part of it. We need to listen to the voices of those most impacted, so that we know what is most critical—because if we can work on those issues and break them down, so that people most impacted understand how they can be involved, they will be.

Learn about the health equity issues affecting Coloradans at Collective Colorado, a publication of The Colorado Trust.