Dennis Borel looks back on 24 years advocating for Texans with disabilities

The retiring executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities says progress is still needed.

By Shelly BrisbinFebruary 23, 2024 1:47 pm, ,

It’s been 24 years since Dennis Borel took the helm at the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities.

During his tenure as executive director, the CTD has advocated for public policy empowering people with all kinds of disabilities. The organization has also celebrated disabled Texans’ contributions to arts and culture. Borel announced his retirement earlier this month.

A statement from CTD reads in part, “The right and ability to make choices about one’s own life based on individual wants and needs is central to living a self-determined life, and it is a core value that has guided Dennis’ work.”

Borel told the Standard that much progress has been made in advocacy for and by Texans with disabilities, but that more is needed. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How have you been taking stock of these years? I mean, has it sunk in yet?  

Dennis Borel: Yes, it has. Because while the announcement was just very recent, I had informed my board probably about six months ago.

And as you can see – though your readers or your listeners cannot see me – you’re looking at me and you know this was not an early retirement. So I’ve been somewhat planning for it and planning the organization for it. And my small, but excellent, staff – they will carry this work forward. 

The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities has a sort of unique place in the disability community. So many other organizations focus on a particular disability group or an issue. But CDT joins many of these organizations together, sort of like a hub, almost. How have you thought about managing so many issues and interests when you communicate about public policy? I think that’s going to be an important consideration for your successor. 

Yeah, certainly is.

And by the way, my successor is Chase Bearden, who is currently the deputy executive director and will assume the executive director role on April 1. He’s been there more than 15 years. So he’s a veteran.

So how do you deal with a cross-disability environment. Well,  I think it works actually better than a lot of single-issue kinds of things.

And one of the wonderful things about the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities is we have access to incredible experts – experts with lived experience, with public policy experience. It can focus on, what do children with autism need? What do paralyzed veterans value most? What does the ADAPT community and their efforts on community services and support value the most? And we can pull all those things together.

We have, again, a small staff, but access to many, many experts. 

A man wearing over the ear headphones speaks into a microphone looking in the direction of a woman seated facing him in the foreground. He is Chase Bearden, of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, and he is speaking to Texas Standard reporter and producer Shelly Brisbin during a disability advocates roundtable. They are in a radio station recording studio. The Texas Standard logo is seen on the wall behind Bearden and a tablet showing a teleprompter app is seen sitting on the table between him and Brisbin.

Michael Minasi / Texas Standard

Chase Bearden, deputy executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, will succeed Dennis Borel following his retirement.

But I also know that you are dealing with a lot of different constituencies. And, for instance, you hear that the Legislature has a surplus going into a new session, you’ve got all of these groups all wanting a piece of that pie.

You have a unique perspective on where the needs are. You don’t want to say, “nah, we’re going to hold back this year,” or do you? How do you juggle these? What can be, in very real practical terms, competing interests sometimes? 

Well, for the most part, they’re not competing interests. The competing interests are the other groups in society that aren’t among the community of people with disabilities. And actually, this is where a lot of the philosophies we have come from.

So here’s the way I’ve seen this over 24 years. We are one of the richest societies in the history of the world. In fact, our leadership brags about if Texas were a standalone country, we’d rank something like ninth or 10th in the entire globe.  

Actually eighth. 

Right. So part of the question in society and in public policy is how do we apportion those resources among all the various different groups? And too many of our leaders see this as a zero-sum game. And what I mean is that they see the bottom line.

These are resources. So if we’re going to increase resources to one group, we’re going to either deny or decrease resources to another. Now which side do you think the disability community’s usually been on? They’ve been on the bottom end – either being denied resources or even having resources cut to give other resources to, frankly, other groups that have a whole lot more. 

» Texas Standard special report: The State of Disability in Texas

In the course of 25 years, you’ve seen a shift in perceptions of, “well, no, we shouldn’t be cutting these resources for people with disabilities in Texas.” Has any of that attitude changed or modulated in any way over your 25 years?

It’s an excellent question. And OK, this is Texas. It’s not New York. It’s not California, Massachusetts. It’s not even Michigan or or Illinois. This is a state that prides itself on, frankly, little services to its citizens. So it’s always tougher.

So as I’m measuring things, as I go along, do I compare myself to how things have increased or have we moved the needle in the right direction? I’ve got a few examples that will show you that we move the needle in the right direction, but the pace of that progress is falling short of the pace it’s needed.

Here’s a couple: the community attendants support. You know, 300,000 people with disabilities who live in a community, many of whom are older adults –  terribly low-paid workforce. OK, we got a bump this past session, a pretty significant one. A lot of dollar amounts, but it’s only $10.60 an hour with no benefits.

When I started those jobs, those community attendant jobs paid a wage that was similar to competing employers like fast food, entry-level retail, simple warehouse work, that kind of stuff. You know what? Yes, we’ve increased the wage over time, but we’ve actually increased the gap between that pay and to the competing employers. So the workforce is actually collapsing.

Did we improve? We did. Did a piece of improvement keep pace with the rest of society? No. 

Let me give you one more example that’s really in the news a lot today. Our kids with disabilities having educational opportunities better than they used to 24 years ago. The answer is yes. Yet, what is the major disability policy discussion going on today? Whether we can take public dollars and buy private school education and private schools will not recognize the educational rights of students with disabilities, including that will deny them the opportunity to attend those private schools. That is a fact. That is where our policy discussion is.

So did we make things better? We did. But aren’t we going off the rails now in the wrong direction? I say we are.

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I mentioned CTD’s role in arts and culture. Could you say a little bit more about that? What sort of role? 

Well, arts is advocacy. And it’s actually one of the more fun things we do. You know, you can change hearts and minds by talking about public policy, but you can also demonstrate it through arts.

We started a film festival called Cinema Touching Disability. We just completed our 20th annual film festival. And going forward, we got this competition of films from all over the world. We show them usually a couple of nights, and it’s here in Austin. It’s great stuff. People who come and see these films or occasionally see them online will perhaps learn. It’s a learning opportunity. Look at things differently. 

We also do a live open mic called The Lion & Pirate. It’s now online. 

And we also have done a few pretty outrageous public awareness events. And I think one you’re familiar with is the Team Everest expedition – actually one of the first things I did there. We had three employees, no money, and we did this thing to raise the profile of the organization. I said, “let’s organize an expedition to Mount Everest by people with disabilities.” Which, of course, was a massive, huge success and way back in 2003, made mountaineering history and elevated the profile of CTD in the capital. And frankly, you know, globally, believe it or not.

Not only that, in that summer after that happened, I was able to get a private meeting with [then-Governor] Rick Perry and after the Legislature had gutted some disability services. Gov. Perry restored those, including things like the family-based alternatives that gets kids out of nursing homes and puts them in foster families to receive extra support.

That was zeroed out by the Legislature. Perry restored it. He restored $300 million in cuts to community attended programs that had been deleted by the Legislature. And how did I get that private meeting? Gov. Perry invited me over to congratulate me about Team Everest. So I leveraged that into an advocacy win.  

A quarter century ago, did you imagine you’d be sitting here talking about your retirement in 2024?  

Well, I didn’t know whether the organization was going to last another year, frankly. These are  tough nonprofits.

Keep in mind, the people with disabilities are the lowest income demographic group in our society, have the highest unemployment rate, are less likely to own their own home or a car, are more likely to die prematurely – not from their disability, but from substandard health care. So my constituency wasn’t going to be able to support this organization. So we had to do things differently.

That was not going to be easy. And, you know, frankly, doing audacious things like the Team Everest expedition got some new eyes on us. And when they heard about the things we were working on in policy, we were able to figure out different ways to grow and solidify and stabilize CTD. 

Well, you’ve conquered Mount Everest. So, what’s the next mountain to climb? 

Well, my partner, Linda Frost, and I are planning to go sea kayaking in the North Atlantic. So that’s my next one in the short term. 

I mentioned the zero-sum game where public policy is –  if you give more to one group, you have to take somebody else down. Well, you know what? I think the next mountain is we change our thinking. We get people to realize, when you invest, say, in the disability community – give them access to education, employment, community supports, medicines, voting rights and more – you’ll actually strengthen that group.

And that zero-sum? It isn’t a zero-sum. Our total sum of resources will actually increase, not at the expense of any group, but while investing in those who have the best potential for a huge return on investment to society as a whole. 

Dennis, I don’t know you too well, but I can tell that you have such a passion for this. I’m going to make a prediction that you’re not going to be too far away from this kind of work – advocacy work – in the distant future. 

Well, you know, thanks. I appreciate that. I do have a passion for it. And it’s from the people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with.

I’ve already told Chase and my folks that are continuing on, that, yeah, I expect to be on their speed dial. But I don’t expect to be doing 50 hours a week.

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