Clifford Poetz, pioneering advocate for people with disabilities, dies at 71

Katie Galioto, Star Tribune
·3 min read

Decades before the word "retarded" was widely considered an offensive term, 23-year-old Clifford Poetz urged federal lawmakers to stop using the label he felt was misleading, restrictive and dehumanizing to people with developmental disabilities like himself.

"It must have taken incredible courage to stand up to such prejudice and discrimination to become one of the very earliest and most effective self-advocates for rights, dignity and opportunity for individuals with developmental disabilities," Poetz's longtime friend Charlie Lakin said.

Poetz, a lifelong champion and pioneer for Minnesotans with disabilities, died March 25 at age 71.

A 1972 Minneapolis Tribune article about young Poetz, who had cerebral palsy, bears the headline: "Retarded wish society would learn faster." The story, which describes Poetz's desire to see more handicapped people involved in conversations about their rights and well-being, caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy.

A telegram arrived asking Poetz to travel from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., to speak at a hearing on the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act in early 1973. He was the first person with a developmental disability to testify before a congressional subcommittee.

"Nothing got in his way. He was going to make a difference," Larry Poetz said of his younger brother. "It's kind of ironic that out of our family's five kids, he was the one with the disability and he accomplished the most."

Poetz grew up in St. Bonifacius, Minn., and Watertown, Minn., and at age 21 moved to Minneapolis to live in a congregate care residence.

He quickly helped form a group that traveled around the Midwest sharing personal stories and advocating for more agency for people with disabilities, touching on issues such as jobs, wages, marriage and housing.

Poetz soon started living independently and helped launch more advocacy groups, including People First Minnesota, United Handicapped Federation and Advocating Change Together. John Smith, who met Poetz in 1990 while working for The Arc organization, said his friend was a policy wonk and expert at navigating Minnesota politics.

Smith remembers asking his colleague to help find sponsors for a self-advocacy event. Poetz called within an hour saying he'd raised $10,000.

"How many people could do that?" Smith said. "Cliff had those same kind of relationships in many other circles. People knew and trusted him, he was always there."

Among the many projects Poetz had a hand in was a campaign to place headstones on the anonymous graves of an estimated 13,000 Minnesotans who died in state asylums. His work with others spurred the state to issue a formal apology in 2010 for its inhumane treatment of people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

Over the years, Poetz served on a number of boards and received a plethora of awards for his work, including the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation's Self-Empowerment Award. For the past two decades, he worked as a community liaison for the University of Minnesota's Institute on Community Integration.

In 2011, Poetz became a homeowner, a milestone emblematic of the work he'd done for so many years to bring people with disabilities more freedom and opportunities.

"We have come a long way," he said at the time. "People with disabilities matter, and legislators are listening to us like they haven't before."

Friends and family also said Poetz was an avid churchgoer. He showed the same enthusiasm he had for public policy for baseball, particularly his beloved Minnesota Twins.

Services will be scheduled at a later date.

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478