Q&A with CCDC’s Shannon Secrest: Perspectives on Aging

Shannon Secret

Building on our previous work to create an Actionable Aging Policy Agenda, the Bell Policy Center is developing a first-of-its-kind metric to assess Colorado’s progress in adopting age-inclusive public policies and programs. As we do this work, we know successful aging often looks different depending upon factors like race, ethnicity, geographic location, gender, and sexual orientation. That’s why, as we develop this new report, we’re working with partners to better understand the needs, opportunities, and priorities of various communities across our state.

The Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (CCDC), a statewide advocacy group which supports disability rights, is one of the organizations we’re privileged to work with in this effort. CCDC is a recognized leader, known for its deep commitment to social justice. To learn what aging looks like for members of Colorado’s disability community, the impacts of COVID, and how we can expand our support for older individuals with disabilities, we spoke with Shannon Secrest, CCDC’s deputy director.

Can you tell me a little about CCDC and the work you do?

CCDC is a statewide organization advocating for equal rights and access for Coloradans with disabilities. We don’t use the term “disability” in the way most agencies do. Instead, we encourage people to think about disability as anything that’s debilitating for them. So, depending upon the person, disability may mean ADHD, autism, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy. We believe disability is a natural part of human existence. Importantly, about 95 percent of our staff have some sort of disability. We’re not just an organization that talks about disability rights and equality. We’re actually living it.

Can you talk a little about what aging looks like for Coloradans with disabilities?

Aging is still a relatively new phenomena for our community because in the past so many folks with disabilities never had the opportunity to reach older age. For example, think about someone with Down syndrome. In the past, that person didn’t have a chance to age past their 30s or 40s. Not only that, but in previous years, millions of people with disabilities were automatically shoved into institutions. Over the past couple decades, we’ve started investing in home and community-based services (HCBS) to help many people live in their communities. I know this sounds strange, but aging in community with a disability is really a new phenomenon.

As you think about this new phenomenon — older Coloradans with disabilities who now have the chance to live in their communities — how do you think our systems are doing in adapting?

Even though, as of July 26, it has been 31 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed, we’re still in our infancy (the ADA is a national law that prohibits discrimination and requires the provision of reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities). Everyday we’re still fighting over basic ADA compliance. We even had to sue our own state Capitol because it wasn’t accessible. So often, I think we have this mindset that accommodations are a luxury, not a requirement. But we still need to get to the point where accommodations, like having an elevator or a ramp, is the standard.

Can you tell me something about the disability community people might not be aware of?

When most people think of disability, I think they have this narrow picture of a little blue handicapped parking symbol, or they think of disability as this dirty word. But I don’t think people recognize people with disabilities are everywhere. We’re your friend or your coach. We’re your legislator or your pastor. I also think if people don’t see someone’s disability, they believe it doesn’t exist. But think abut all the things we can’t see — whether it’s related to mental or behavioral health, a chronic condition like diabetes, or hearing or vision loss.

Your response makes me think about the value of inclusivity, and how many people benefit from accessible accommodations.

We love to use the example of curb cuts, which work for everyone. People with disabilities were the ones who said every corner should have a curb cut for wheelchairs. But think about everyone else who benefits — it’s people with a walker or a cane, delivery drivers, bicyclists, or parents with strollers. So, when we talk about things that are good for people with disabilities, you’d be hard pressed to show those changes don’t also work for lots of other people.

Zoom is another example. Prior to COVID, we tried to get state agencies to offer Zoom options for meetings. The response we always got was, “Absolutely not. There is only one person on your staff we’re doing this for.” And now, wouldn’t you know, we’ve been able to find a way to make Zoom work for everyone. For many, it’s a matter of convenience, but for others — and not just Coloradans with disabilities — it’s the difference between being able to attend and not attend a meeting. All of this is important because accessibility plays a major role in whose voice is heard. If you don’t have a virtual option, or have a meeting in a building without a ramp, whose voices are excluded?

How do you think COVID impacted older Coloradans with disabilities?

Transportation was a huge issue during the pandemic. For a number of reasons, much of our population doesn’t drive. RTD was shutdown and, we’ve said this a million times, 99 percent of Ubers and Lyfts aren’t accessible. There were also a lot of issues around accommodations people didn’t initially think were possible. But I think the pandemic showed so many things are actually doable. Moving forward, I think the question is, why can’t this be the standard moving forward now that we’ve seen what’s possible?

As you think about the future, how do you think we make some of these accommodations permanent?

I think it’s just so important to reiterate how mutually beneficial these changes are and that we’ve seen how many of these things are possible. We just have to recognize our fellow humans are assets, instead of liabilities, which is how many of us are often seen. I do believe, as humans, we’re able to change. But it requires a fundamental shift in the way we think. It requires reframing and reshaping, and I know it’s difficult.

But I also know for individuals, keeping up the pressure for change can be hard. I know at times when I’ve needed help I’ve been marginalized, ignored, and/or treated badly, and it led to mental and physical fatigue. It can be really scary to put yourself out there to haters, especially those who are saying people with disabilities have less value. But if we don’t advocate for change, if we don’t make it part of our existence, and you just sweep it all under the rug, then you just end up with a lump in the carpet — the dirt and the muck are all still there.

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