Yeager leads by example at Independence Center

DSC_4198Losing and regaining her hearing has had a profound effect on Patricia Yeager’s life.

Yeager, now CEO of The Independence Center, lost about 50 percent of her hearing at age 2, but wasn’t given a hearing aid until she was 5. By then, the West Virginia native’s speech was affected, leading to 12 years of speech therapy. Even so, she didn’t receive a second hearing aid until age 27.

Yeager has a bachelor’s in education from Marshall University, a master’s in rehabilitation counseling from West Virginia University and a doctorate in human rehabilitation from the University of Northern Colorado.

In the 1980s, she lived in Denver for 10 years and was an appointee of then-Mayor Federico Peña to the Commission for People with Disabilities.

She’s also lived in Pittsburgh, Houston, San Diego and Sacramento, Calif., working in disability education/services and advocacy. She enjoys bicycling, reading, snowshoeing and hiking — and plans to “bicycle through the tulips” in Holland this spring.

 

How has your disability affected your choices in life and your career?

As a kid, I didn’t speak clearly, and I wasn’t as social as the other kids, so I experienced a lot of rejection and realized kids don’t like people who are different. So my whole life has been helping people who don’t fit in [to] fit in.

Adults don’t expect much from kids because of their disability, but I knew better. I don’t have a severe disability, but at that time, in the ’50s, it was radical. My parents had high expectations that I would go to school, get a job and support myself and be independent — so I rose to their expectations. That’s what The Independence Center is all about — countering that oppression, that lowered expectation of “we need to take care of you, and you better be happy with what we do for you.”

I met a medical student who’d lost his arm in an accident. And he told me of a master’s program at West Virginia University for rehabilitation counseling. They were giving stipends to support people with disabilities to go to that program, which I did — and it changed everything.

 

How has your career path prepared you for your current position?

All the jobs I’ve had have been about starting up or turning around disability programs — making them more effective. I see this job as my legacy. All of the issues I’ve had to deal with here I’ve dealt with one at a time in each of the different jobs — personnel, finance, different people, different philosophies, how do we provide services. Most of my employees have disabilities. So do we expect the same things from all of our staff? Each job had leadership challenges that prepared me for this job.

From 1997 to 2005, I worked in California with legislation and government and did a lot of public policy and advocacy work. Then I came to Colorado to work on my Ph.D. at Greeley. An Independence Center board member asked [me] to come down to do some consulting — and I fell in love with the place. There’s money here for me to do what I need to do. And the need is great.

There’s a lot happening here. This center was about 25 years old when I got here, and we’ve modernized it from the ground up. It also runs much more like a business. We have a home health care division that brings in about $8 million in revenue a year — and that in turn supports the whole nonprofit. We get about $300,000 a year in government grants. It’s truly the dream of a nonprofit to have a business that supports them. We created systems and infrastructures to support the growth of the business and the independent living program.

 

What is your favorite part of your job?

I have a dynamic team. There’s no one in this building who’s not upbeat and positive and loves what they do. They’re so talented — each one in their own area. And I love the collaboration we have. I hire the right people and create the environment for them to do their work. And the board is fabulous to work with.

The disability community here is hungry for information and validation of the belief that they can create the life they want to live. People move out of their parents’ homes and nursing homes, and we provide the information and cheerleading to help them get there. We ask them, “What is your dream?” and help them create a plan based on objectives and goals. There’s a tremendous opportunity here for me to make a difference. … I like making order out of chaos.

 

What are the challenges for The Independence Center?

It’s a lack of understanding in the political and business community about their legal responsibility to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And the problem is, the only way we can get this national law enforced is by asking nicely or filing a complaint or lawsuit, and in my experience, asking nicely rarely works. This is a civil right, and it costs money. When we gave women, African-Americans and Latinos rights, it didn’t particularly cost extra money — but ADA does.

But it’s been 24 years since it passed. Physical access to health care is still a big issue. People with disabilities can’t get in the [medical] office or building, or some medical clinics still guess at someone’s weight for a dosage of medicine, because they don’t have a wheelchair-accessible scale. Public transportation is an issue, also. Mayor [Steve] Bach has been open to hearing our need for more public transportation.

According to the 2010 Census, 70,000 people with various disabilities live in El Paso County. I really think the disability movement has prepared America for the aging of America. When we’re seniors, we will all use these features that we didn’t have in the ’70s … curb cuts, accessible bathrooms, accessible buses, close-captioning on TV — to name a few. We want to make it OK to be a senior in this country and not be devalued — you can still participate.

 

What are your goals for the center for the next year or so?

We want to become a national model for how home health services can support independent living programs and make the community a better place for people with disabilities.

One of my goals is to have El Paso County be a national model for an emergency plan for people with disabilities. We’re working now to be a national model on how to provide Social Security benefit programs that include employment. We want to make sure everybody has the tools — the adaptive technology to live the life they want to live.

And my last goal is to work with El Paso County and Colorado Springs to enhance their compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act — so that all citizens can participate in community life.

 

When you were a doctoral candidate, you worked on theoretical modeling. What were some of the more intriguing things you learned?

I looked at why people with disabilities work — other than money. The big one was the intrinsic value of work. The feeling of, “I make a difference. I contribute to this world and get paid for it.”

What I found over and over again is, if they don’t accept themselves and their disability and incorporate it into their self-image, they can’t move forward.

If you mourn who you were, you can’t step in to who you are. That’s our job at the Independence Center rehabilitation program: to counsel people to help them accept themselves, so they can move on and create a different life; the life they want.