Cortese: Celebrating the life of a disability rights champion
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors got an earful when the idea of a Juneteenth holiday was introduced. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

I learned early on in life about a sometimes invisible and vulnerable segment of our community — the developmentally disabled.

Although not a large population in Santa Clara County, and despite their disabilities, they and their caretakers have admirably advocated for their needs.

So, I did what I could over the years as an elected official. From helping families find educational programs, fighting for quality care facilities after the closure of the Agnews Developmental Center to funding for paratransit needs, I used my position to try making life easier for those living in a world with so many barriers.

Enter Cheryl Hewitt.

A powerful voice for the developmentally and intellectually disabled in Santa Clara County and statewide, Cheryl helped me to look at the needs of the disabled community multidimensionally.

She developed training for Stanford Medical School students on how to care for people with disabilities and she sought community living opportunities for men and women with disabilities living in nursing homes. Cheryl wanted to help such individuals live beyond their challenges. She believed fiercely in their right to self-determination — that people with developmental disabilities retained the right to express their needs and desires and take part in planning their futures.

Cheryl Hewitt is pictured here with Pattie Cortese. Photo courtesy of Dave Cortese.

Her passion for giving a voice to this quiet population and her years on disability advisory commissions and boards led me to ask her to advise my office on how to inform and better serve the disabled community. With her guidance, we were able to advocate better for this community and learned how to empower individuals to represent their needs.

During the PG&E power outages and as COVID-19 dominated our concerns, Cheryl reminded us of the effects on the developmentally disabled. Many are cared for by In-Home Supportive Service providers. These caregivers are not unlike nursing home staff. They work with a fragile, high-risk population and should be recognized for their efforts.

To lessen the risk of infection, Cheryl began campaigning for protective equipment for the caregivers. I know that protection such as masks is in short supply, but there are many categories of essential workers and in-home caregivers are vital to the health of our community. The better we equip them, the fewer people enter the COVID-19 pipeline.

Cheryl Hewitt passed away last month at the age of 60. My office mourns her loss.

We will carry on her work. We will continue to fight for caregivers’ safety. Our long-term work to support the voices and needs of the disabled will push forward with Cheryl’s voice reminding us to advocate for and in concert with the community.

Dave Cortese has served on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors for more than a decade with four years as Board President. Prior to this, Dave Cortese served eight years on the San Jose City Council, including two years as vice mayor.

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