BY: USA GAMES CORRESPONDENT, MIKE GASTINEAU
Stacy Gillett is the Executive Director of The Arc of King County and as such oversees an organization dedicated to serving all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities across their lifespan. It’s the latest stop in Gillett’s 30-year career in disability rights work.
After college, Gillett started her career with the Disability Law Center of Alaska. For eight years, she traveled the tundra of the Last Frontier to various cities, towns, and villages doing special education work and making sure kids got into school and were properly taught.
She then spent 20 years with Seattle’s Dussault Law Group as an advocate where she worked with families who felt their children weren’t being treated properly at school. She also worked with an attorney who created new special education statutes in Washington state.
Then, prior to joining the Arc of King County, she was the Director of the Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds for Washington Governor Jay Inslee. That office has the rather lofty mission statement of promoting equity in education by working with families and schools to remove barriers so that every student can fully participate in and benefit from public education in the state of Washington.
So, given her life’s work in the pursuit of better situations for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, it was easy for her friend, Kimberly Corrigan, to nominate her to be recognized by the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games' #ImAGameChanger campaign. It’s tough to accurately calculate the number of lives she has positively impacted so let’s just agree it’s a big number.
But just recounting her professional story does not begin to give you the complete picture of why Gillett is a game changer. To get the complete picture, you only have to know about one life she impacted. You have to know the story of Gillett’s younger sister Colleen.
Colleen has Down syndrome and Autism. This was not a big deal to Stacy when they were growing up because it was just how life was for her family.
“From my perspective, my sister was one of three girls raised in a single-parent house,” Gillett said. “She was a part of everything we did. We didn’t have a choice and that’s the beauty of it sometimes.”
She may have been a part of everything the family did but when it came to education things were different.
“There weren’t educational options available for her so my mom had to hire an attorney just to make sure Colleen was able to go to school,” Gillett said. “Then, when she aged out of the school system, there was nothing available to help her. There was no transition to employment. There were no day programs. The shock was pretty phenomenal and as a family, we confronted all those realities.”
Gillett says she and her other sister (Jaimie) became activists for Colleen. They realized everything that Colleen did have access to was segregated and separated her from people. They began challenging what was considered the norm within their community and constantly pushing for improvements where their sister (and others) were concerned. Gillett doesn’t feel as if there were walls being purposefully built to block Colleen’s progress. It was just simply the way things were done at the time.
“We (society) originally built systems that were non-inclusive and separate because of discrimination. We wanted to get everyone into school and everyone involved in the community, but we wanted to do it separately because we felt we needed to protect people with intellectual disabilities and we didn’t know enough about how to do that.”
As the once accepted idea of separation slowly gave way to the idea that programs could and needed to be inclusive, Gillett was heartened to be able to see things change for the better both professionally during her career and personally as she’s watched her sister’s life unfold.
Professionally, she’s spent her life advocating for inclusion and opportunities for thousands of people while helping others adjust how they look at people with intellectual disabilities.
“I spend a lot of my job trying to change people’s attitudes,” she said. “When we do a good job of inclusion in school, kids don’t develop those attitudes. They end up with relationships with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and that changes their view of what to expect.”
It’s not lost on her that over three decades she and the people she’s worked with have repeatedly been agents for positive change.
“I feel like Forrest Gump every once in a while,” she said. “I’ve been around a lot of little pieces of history that I didn’t realize at the time were going to be so relevant. In hindsight, it’s easier to understand and appreciate it.”
That’s the professional side. Her success with the Disability Law Center of Alaska, the Dussault Law Group, and the Arc of King Country has been motivated by an unstoppable desire to make things better for people with intellectual disabilities.
The motivation on the personal side is simpler and even easier to understand. “We just wanted the best for our sister.”