We run the table

“We’re not invited to the table. We run the table.” –Phil Pangrazio, President & CEO, Ability360

Many years ago, after his very inspiring keynote at an Arizona NAMI conference I approached Phil Pangrazio, President and CEO of Ability360, and I shared with him our inclusivity of people with lived experience in my work at Magellan Health. It’s commonplace in mental health and suicide prevention task forces to have a single person representing the stories of a peer, but we had gone far beyond and we were proud of the results we were beginning to attain. I was a little stunned when his face showed disgust.

Taken aback, Phil patiently explained his view of our tokenism, and explained that disability rights have made their amazing gains because people like himself aren’t invited to the table, but rather “run the table.” People with disabilities are the CEOs and the chairs of the board, he explained, and then he shared how this integration changes literally all the outcomes, from personal growth, confidence, accountability and empowerment to the impact on legislators when the individuals making the ask are the ones with the story, not a provider or family member who have multiple interests.

Mental health recovery leaders began calling for “nothing about us without us” decades ago, but they borrowed this phrase from the disability rights community. This year is the 30th anniversary of President George H.W. Bush signing into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, and while there is much work yet to do to ensure full access and opportunity, people with different abilities are twice as likely to be employed as those with serious mental illness. It’s time to follow their lead further and dramatically strengthen the inclusivity of people with lived experience in the leadership and design of mental health, substance use and suicide prevention.

David Covington

David is CEO and President of RI International. He’s a behavioral health innovator, entrepreneur and storyteller, and the creator of HopeInc.com.