If anyone embodies the fierce, compassionate spirit of advocacy at the heart of The Arc, it’s Debbi Harris, MA, MS, the 2023 Vice President of our national Board of Directors. For over 25 years, Debbi has fought tirelessly to shape systems that fully include people with disabilities and complex medical needs—and it all starts with Josh.
Debbi’s son Josh was born eight weeks early with a grade four brain hemorrhage. As she shares, “He was one of the sickest babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. It started our roller coaster of a journey of having a child with complex medical needs and disabilities.”
Securing reliable home nursing supports has always been a struggle. When he was an infant, there was a constant rotation of providers coming to her door, many of whom had limited training.
“It was really scary… Josh was harmed because people were coming in who weren’t well-oriented or trained to care for him. At just 18 months old, Josh was hospitalized three times because of this.”
Debbi and her husband Victor also struggled with their careers while managing Josh’s needs and raising their two other children. Victor was often called away for active duty with the military. Debbi worked full time in a traditional office setting, often working into the night to meet her deadlines and hold onto their health insurance. “That insurance was what was providing Josh’s life-sustaining medical care. But because of the hospitalizations, I gave up my career to stay home and care for him when he was two years old.”
Out of crisis came purpose. Debbi soon immersed her family in The Arc’s chapter support systems, connecting her sons to sibling workshops and herself to a parent networking group. “We still count on those relationships for support today,” added Debbi.
Not long after, her local chapter of The Arc called on her to testify in support of the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA) and better standards for care workers. Years later, when Josh was headed off to school for the first time, Debbi found herself in battle for nursing support. School officials told her that Josh couldn’t go to their school unless she paid for a nurse to accompany him during the school day. “I was so jolted by what they said, and I knew we had a big fight on our hands, so I went to The Arc and they stuck by me,” she recalled. “They looked up precedent cases, got their big-time lawyers involved… and we won.”
Debbi not only secured Josh’s rights to nursing care within the school, but her victory paved the way for other families. Now the school must notify every family whose child needs nursing care that they are entitled to support in school.
Debbi constantly found herself in circles with The Arc, including a fundraiser at the home of a family that had two daughters with disabilities. That led to leadership roles in chapters of The Arc—from serving on the Board of The Arc of Dakota County to The Arc of Minnesota and as Board Chair for The Arc of Greater Twin Cities. Debbi has been involved in so many aspects of community advocacy, including working with local and federal legislators. She’s also a published writer illuminating caregiving and equity issues in medical journals.
Debbi’s exceptional contributions earned her the prestigious Betty Hubbard Family Advocacy Award from The Arc of Minnesota in 2013. Her family got to witness her receiving the award. “It meant a lot that they were able to be proud of me in that way,” Debbi shares.
Once The Arc of the United States got word of Debbi’s powerhouse advocacy, we invited her to apply for the Board. Her proudest volunteer moments have been spearheading the creation of The Arc’s anti-racism position statement and filming a campaign for paid leave in her home. For Debbi, The Arc provides community, kinship, and collective power to drive social change. She points to our strong advocacy at the heart of improving quality-of-life for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). And, as she adds, our work is “authentic, grassroots, and rooted in the lived experiences of people with disabilities. We see dignity in all people and we’re willing to make sure that everyone sees that dignity.”
For over 25 years, Debbi’s been on a mission to teach parents how to effectively advocate for their children and to shine a spotlight on the marginalization of people with IDD and the caregiving crisis—and that mission continues today. Debbi is eager to continue leveraging her passion, wisdom, and connections to uplift the disability community nationwide. Her relentless drive reminds us that within all of us lies the power to champion inclusive communities.