Birthday: March 31, 1952
Occupation: Director for Human Relations Department for the City of Salina, Kansas and ADA Coordinator
Disability: Head injury as a result of injury as a child, Sleep Apnea, disc problems with her back and some hearing loss
As a child, Gina hit a taxi cab while riding her bike. She had a skull fracture. At that time she probably would have died, but the accident happened right next to a hospital. Workers on the roof saw the accident, called the emergency room and the ambulance got to her quickly. She had trouble with short term memory loss and some hearing loss. Her parents never let her use her limitations to get out of doing what she needed to do. She was expected to carry on and move on with what needed to be done and she credits that for her attitude that we all must carry on and not use a limitation as an excuse.
While she was in high school she and a friend wanted to do something and needed money. The friend suggested going to her mother’s work to get the money. She worked at a developmental disability hospital on Long Island. They went into the occupational therapy room and saw everyone dressed in diapers and crawling around on the floor. One man appeared to be crawling after what looked like a piece of cucumber. Gina and her friend were shocked and appalled to see this happening. Both of them were so angry to see that going on. They asked if they needed volunteers to help getting the people dressed. They were rushed out of the room, told not to tell anyone and that no one was supposed to be back there. This experience motivated her to want to go into independent living.
Gina went to Marymount College in Salina. After graduation with a degree in Sociology, she did internships at Kansas Vocational Rehabilitation Center where they assess people with disabilities’ needs and helped them find jobs. She also had an internship at OCCK in Salina. She got a job as staff in the sheltered workshop at OCCK. During that time, OCCK paid for Gina to attend graduate school where she graduated from the University of San Francisco with a Masters degree in Rehabilitation Administration.
She helped find jobs for clients in the community, but because they were living in the group homes, the schedule would not allow them to get certain jobs that didn’t fit in with the group home schedule.
A few years later the state offered an independent living grant, so she did research on independent living and wrote the grant. They were successful the next year and this got her into independent living. While not an independent living center grant, this started OCCK’s independent living program. This moved people with disabilities out of the group homes and into apartments making it easier for them to find work in the community. This helped staff realize that people with disabilities could live independently.
During this time, the centers for independent living (CIL) in the state formed the Kansas Association of Centers for Independent Living (KACIL) and Gina was elected the first president.
She became the director of The Whole Person CIL in Kansas City, Missouri. She got more involved nationally with the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL). The Whole Person was involved in advocacy work in Kansas and Missouri and she spent a lot of time in Jefferson City doing advocacy work.
While at a NCIL conference she saw a man with a cowboy hat in a manual chair looking lost. She asked if he was lost and he said he was looking for the main meeting room. She offered to push him there and found out a little later that it was Justin Dart, their main speaker.
After the law was passed that created the self-directed care Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) waiver program, she talked to Marlene Finney about implementation of the program. Marlene said she couldn’t find someone to help get the program started. Gina offered to help and went to work for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS) to start the program. After a few months she needed something more to do and started working with Mary Pat Beals with the Kansas Head Injury Association on the head injury waiver, which became the first self directed Head Injury Waiver in the nation.
CILS were hesitant to implement the self-directed services, because they were afraid of liability. Eventually, Mike Donnelly with the Topeka Independent Resource Center offered to provide services all over the state. Ray Petty with Independence, Inc. in Lawrence agreed to take on a few also. The CILs then saw they could make money and not have any liability, so they started providing the services.
After these programs got off the ground, Mike Donnelly, then president of KACIL, hired her and gave them a grant to have her earn enough money to make KACIL run independently. KACIL received a contract from SRS to go out and perform all of the Developmental Disability (DD) reviews to make sure everyone was in the correct service tier. They were able to hire people to do the reviews and ended up with several thousand dollars to use for KACIL. She worked half time doing consulting across the country and half time as the director which brought in money that they could use to lobby. KACIL was probably her favorite job. Gina worked with Martha Gabehart and the Kansas Commission on Disability Concerns to bring advocates together and develop a “Statement of Solidarity” where advocates for many different disabilities and Unions promised to work together to get funding for community based programs.
Kansas, with the directors from centers for independent living (CILs) and Shannon Jones from the Statewide Independent Living Council of Kansas (SILCK), advocated for many laws to benefit people with disabilities. They also substantially increased the funding for the Home and Community Services Based Waivers.
During her time at NCIL, she chaired the Health Care Committee during the time that President Clinton proposed Health Care for All. Justin Dart worked closely with Gina during the advocacy for that bill.
She also worked on the Fair Housing Amendments Act, the Civil Rights Restoration Act, the Air Carriers Access Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as an advocate in Washington. Marca Bristo, who was NCIL President at the time, along with Justin became mentors for Gina.
Gina became president of NCIL and worked with Congress on reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act and the statewide independent living councils. At that time Governor Joan Finney’s Chief of Staff met with Gina and KACIL and talked about the need for a disability liaison in the governor’s office. Renee Gardner was hired in that role. After the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act was passed, Gina worked with Governor Finney’s office on setting up a 501c3 SILCK. Martha Hodgesmith helped set it up and then Gina provided training on how to get non-profit SILCs set up in other states.
In her last year as NCIL President, Gina was appointed by President Clinton and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve on of the National Council on Disability. During her time on the NCD, reports were issued on how IDEA was being implemented in schools, a review of the ADA and how it was being enforced, and a report on mental illness in the US.
After 14 years with KACIL, she was ready for another change. She worked for Kansas Children’s Service League (KCSL) for a while on advocacy efforts for children’s right for a couple of years.
She then had the opportunity to work for the City of Salina, Kansas as their Director of the Department of Human Relations and the ADA coordinator. She remains active with OCCK as a board member and as Board President for Independent Connection, the Center for Independent Living in Salina. She volunteers for the Kansas Youth Empowerment Academy’s (KYEA) Kansas Youth Leadership Forum (KYLF). Gina also serves on the Board of Women Helping Women, a not for profit that raises money to assist women in crisis.
- Nov. 1989 - Missouri Association of Centers for Independent Living Award
- October, 1990 - Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities - ADA Award
- May, 1991 - National Council on Independent Living President's Award
- April, 1992 - Kansas Association of Licensed Private Child Care Agencies Advocacy Award
- May, 1995 - National Council on Independent Living Legislative & Advocacy Award
- April, 1996 - Directors Award from Self Initiated Living Options, Inc. Long Island, New York.
- May, 1996 - Justin Dart "Democracy" Award. (Justin awarded me 4 silver Jefferson cups for work on disability rights and Health care for all) These are my most prized awards!
- June, 1999 - ADAPT Award
Compiled by Martha Gabehart from an interview with Gina McDonald