Throughout her decades-long career leading independent living centers, Patricia Yeager has fought to change public perceptions and empower those with disabilities.
Yeager, who has served as the CEO of The Independence Center of Colorado Springs for the past nine years, knows all too well the stigma faced by those with disabilities. Growing up in Huntington, West Virginia, she saw some of them firsthand.
“I lost a good part of my hearing at the age of 2, which is an important time for speech development,” Yeager said. “When I was a kid, people would see my hearing aids and make all sorts of assumptions of, ‘Oh, she’s not very smart. What can we expect from her?’
“So I know, at least a little bit, that feeling of being less-than — not because of anything you can control but because of that disability. And it just pisses me off, frankly. It makes me frustrated and angry and makes me want to show people that I can do this, and so can all these other people with disabilities.”
Yeager’s career working with those with disabilities has taken her across the country.
She was the executive director of the Denver Center for Independent Living from 1989-1991, held the same position for the Access Center of San Diego from 1992-1997, and again for the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers from 1997-2005.
“Living in West Virginia, it’s hard to get out,” Yeager said. “So when I got a chance I just had to keep going west until I couldn’t go west any further. And I did move around quite a bit — although the more you do it, the harder it is. So I think I’m done moving around.”
Yeager moved back to Colorado in 2006 to complete her Ph.D. in rehabilitation administration and in 2011, was offered the job of CEO at The Independence Center of Colorado Springs.
Her primary mission in taking over the position was to help modernize the operation, and she’s since led the organization through a period of significant expansion.
“When I came in … we had 160 people working here and we were still doing things a family way, which is not bad when you’re small, because it’s a great culture to work in. But when you’re large, you have to do some things differently.”
Yeager led efforts to computerize the organization’s accounting and human resources programs, acquire tracking software for its home health business and substantially grow its staff.
She also helped diversify its funding streams which, before her arrival, were completely dependent on Medicaid.
“This has gotten bigger than anything I ever dreamed of in 2011 when I first started here,” Yeager said. “We now have about 340 people working here and our revenues have doubled.”
And though she’s proud of the growth she’s overseen at the center, she said what’s been most rewarding about her career thus far — she plans on retiring in two years — has been making a difference in individual’s lives.
“When I see people with disabilities who have never spoken up at a city council meeting or county commissioner meeting … and they speak up about what they need and what will make the community better for people with disabilities, when they’ve never done that before, it makes me a little emotional,” Yeager said. “Because you can see that, all of a sudden, they see someone’s listening and that they might see change occur. And it makes them see themselves differently.
“So it’s about building social capital and seeing people with disabilities not as takers, but as people who can contribute to make the community better.
“When they have that opportunity, man, there’s just nothing better.”