Poetz defined self-advocacy, led way for many others

Poetz defined self-advocacy, led way for many others

by Jane McClure

Cliff Poetz not only defined self-advocacy, he set the example and opened the door for countless others to take up the cause of disability rights. Poetz died March 25. He was 71 years old and is regarded as one of the founders of the self-advocacy movement.

Since 2001 Poetz served as community liaison with the Research and Training Center on Community Living within the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration (ICI).

At the time Poetz became an activist, about 200,000 Minnesotans were still living in institutions. He began his adult life with modest aspirations, even telling a newspaper reporter in the 1970s that his dream job was to be a janitor or janitor’s assistant. But he was able to do so much more, even while living in dire poverty at times.

The lexicon of Poetz’s world went from the offensive phrase “mentally retarded” to “handicapped” to “disability.” He became a skilled leader, able to effectively champion legislation, navigate the halls of government and raise awareness of important issues. Friends said he showed unbelievable strength of character and courage.

Looking back on his work as a self-advocate, Poetz said in 2016 that he was driven by the desire for everyone to have the best life possible and to be part of the community. Poetz also gave credit to the many people he worked with over the years, adding that he couldn’t have accomplished as much alone.

“It is hard to overemphasize the courage and commitment that Cliff has shown in more than 45 years of community advocacy and leadership,” said Poetz’s longtime friend Charlie Lakin. “Cliff has never relented in his commitment to stand up to injustice and to make life better for people with disabilities. Cliff has given enormously in time and effort to support full citizenship and equal opportunity for people with developmental disabilities.”

“I know of no one who has a better understanding of how politics enters into decisions at all levels, and has the interest and patience to get involved and stick around until his voice is heard,” said colleague John G. Smith.

Poetz was active in countless local, state and national disability rights groups and won many awards including the 2016 Access Press Charlie Smith Award. The award was given for many years to a Minnesotan who provided outstanding service to the state’s disability community.

Services for Poetz will be held at a later date.

Early life

Clifford Linus Poetz was born in Waconia to Alphonse and Mary (Green) Poetz. His family included three other sons and a daughter. His brother LeRoy Poetz preceded him in death by less than a week.

Poetz grew up in the St. Bonifacius and Watertown communities. He lived with cerebral palsy, dyslexia and physical, cognitive and visual disabilities. He attended grade school in Waconia, and then spent three years at the Cooperative Rehabilitation School in Glen Lake.

Opportunities were scarce in small-town Minnesota, so Poetz moved to Minneapolis at age 21, living in a congregate facility with 120 other people.

In his new home, Poetz and two others formed a group, Telling It Like it Is. The Arc’s predecessor organizations supported the group as members traveled the region sharing the experiences of persons with developmental disabilities living in congregate settings and the pain and discrimination derived from being labeled as “retarded.”

Lakin recalled Poetz’s frequent observation that “When people are labeled retarded, people think they are stupid.”

Activist awakenings

Poetz began to get involved in self-advocacy and disability rights organizations, starting in the 1970s. A 1972 Minneapolis Tribune article headlined “Retarded wish society would learn faster” described Poetz’s participation in a panel discussion before the Minneapolis Association for Retarded Children (MARC).

At the time Poetz described himself as “mentally retarded,” even though he detested the R-word. He described himself as “learning faster than society did.”

“They think right away that you’re crazy,” he said. “They call you dumb and stupid. It doesn’t make you feel very good. But we’re average people who want to live average lives. We may have our difficulties but we know when we need help.”

Poetz had recently completed basic living classes at Outreach Community Center in Minneapolis, and moved into an apartment building owned by the nonprofit. He was employed at Midway Learning and Manufacturing Company in St. Paul, earning 30 cents an hour for washing, drying and rolling telephone cords. He had worked his way up from 20 cents an hour and described the job as “sorta dull.”

That newspaper article made its way to the desk of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts). Kennedy, who had a lifelong interest in helping people with disabilities, invited Poetz in 1973 to speak at a hearing on the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act. That invitation was history-making. Poetz became the first person with a developmental disability to address a congressional subcommittee.

Lakin recalled that Poetz had two poignant memories from that experience. When a congressional staff member called to offer the invitation, the director of the facility where Poetz lived hung up on the caller. The director thought it was a prank call.

Only when Kennedy himself called, and backed his call up with a telegram, was it understood that Poetz was indeed being summoned to the nation’s capital.

“The other memory was that prior to the hearing, a leading advocate of a major disability organization questioned in front of Poetz whether it was a good idea for someone with a developmental disability to be testifying on such important legislation,” said Lakin. “I asked Cliff how that made him feel. He replied matter-of-factly that he knew she was wrong about that. Of course, today Congressional hearings on legislation affecting persons with developmental disabilities always include persons with disabilities.”

Working for change

Poetz often spoke of how people with disabilities wanted the same things others had: meaningful work, their own housing, full community participation, the right to marry and have children.

“We want a good job and we want to live in the community like everybody else. right now, the system does not give us that opportunity,” Poetz said in an interview.

“We want community acceptance,” Poetz said. “and for parents to understand this. They have an overprotective attitude you wouldn’t believe.” His own family questioned his abilities.

Good jobs were a major focus for him. By 1974 Poetz was working at the Occupational Training Center in St. Paul, inspecting labels pasted onto bottles. He earned 75 cents an hour.

He dealt with extreme prejudice, pity and patronizing behavior. As a young man he bristled at those who described him and others with disabilities in child-like terms. The article described a center worker who called Poetz a “good boy.”

“No,” he retorted quickly. “I’m not a boy.”

While Poetz jumped at the chance to lead, he expressed ambivalence about being appointed to the Minnesota Youth Association for Retarded Children. He was 23 years old at the time.

Countless projects

Other, more meaningful appointments would follow. He was involved in the launch of several disability service and self-advocacy organizations starting in the 1970s, including People First Minnesota, United Handicapped Federation and Advocating Change Together. He served as a board member for the Arc of the Greater Twin Cities, Arc of Minnesota and Arc of the United States.

He was a member of the Minnesota Council on Disability, Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts board and the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals. He took many advisory role for foundations and academic centers, ranging from the Headwaters Foundation for Justice to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute on Disability and Human Development.

Poetz assumed leadership posts in public policy reform and leadership development. He worked on legislative agendas to put people first, and spoke with authority on issues affecting people with all types of disabilities.

He helped organize one of the first self-advocacy conferences in Minnesota. The start of Metro Mobility, voting rights efforts, establishment of smaller group homes to get people out of larger institutions, community-based employment, more inclusive and respectful language, creation of the direct support provider program and many other issues bear his imprint.

Poetz was among the founders of Remembering With Dignity, the project that provides proper headstones in cemeteries at state institutions.

He performed in the 1996 play “Let Heaven and Nature Sing” with Interact and what was then the Great American History Theater. The play is about life in the state hospital at Faribault in the 1940s.

He received many awards. Poetz was the very first recipient of the Governor’s Award of the Minnesota State Council on Disability. He also received the Leadership in Advocacy Award of the Association of University Centers on Disability.

When he won the Charlie Smith Award, Poetz roared with laughter at his coworkers’ good-natured teasing in a slide show. Among other places it put him on the moon, Europe and on Mount Rushmore.

One major award was the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation’s Self-Empowerment Award, a national award given to very few people. The Arc of the Greater Twin Cities’ highest honor, the Founders Award, was given to him as was the statewide organization’s Public Policy Award.

Whatever he did, Poetz led by example. When he purchased his own condominium a decade ago, he used the accomplishment to encourage others to use programs set up to promote home ownership. When he presented testimony before policymakers, he encouraged his colleagues to do the same.

Hard as it had been, Poetz was always ready to acknowledge ground gained. He received many awards. Poetz was the very first recipient of the Governor’s Award of the Minnesota State Council on Disability. He also received the Leadership in Advocacy Award of the Association of University Centers on Disability.

When he won the Charlie Smith Award, Poetz roared with laughter at his coworkers’ good-natured teasing in a slide show. Among other places it put him on the moon, Europe and on Mount Rushmore.

One major award was the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation’s Self-Empowerment Award, a national award given to very few people. The Arc of the Greater Twin Cities’ highest honor, the Founders Award, was given to him as was the statewide organization’s Public Policy Award.

 “We have fought for so long to be part of the community,” he told one interviewer. “There is progress.”