The disability community suffered a devastating blow with the passing of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities’ Deputy Director of Programs Denise Arnold on Saturday, June 30.
Denise was a champion for people with disabilities in Florida for more than 30 years. A kind and dynamic person, she not only loved people but had a love for animals. She treated everyone the same, whether she was dealing with a mom, dad, brother, or person with a disability.
“Denise was always there to help the disability community, tirelessly and with the upmost kindness and compassion,” said Tricia Ricardi, former vice-chair of the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council (FDDC).
Denise began her career in the disability field as a direct care worker years before APD existed. In 1986, she went to work for the state of Florida at the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), which later became the Department of Children and Families (DCF). In 2004, she was instrumental in transitioning DCF’s Developmental Disabilities Program Office to the newly created Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Her recent service to people with disabilities included being the APD representative on the FDDC.
Denise’s accomplishments were so much more than lines on a resume. Her passion for empowering individuals with developmental disabilities was unwavering, inspiring her to work on projects and systems change efforts that would make an authentic improvement in their lives. Denise helped revise the way APD focused on the people it serves. She advocated for personal choice in services, person-centered planning, and training for providers in person-centered planning. She was the lead on the Blue-Ribbon Taskforce charged with revising the way the agency conducted business, emphasizing that every service should be focused on the people being served and their families.
This guiding philosophy of person-centered focus and planning resulted in an abundance of policy, program, and systems changes and improvements that truly impacted the lives of people with disabilities for the better. Denise advocated for people with developmental disabilities to have the right supports in place to live in their own homes and make choices about their lives. She led the development of the iBudget Florida program, which transferred ownership to individuals and their families for managing their services. She was the originator of creating support plans, the application for services, and the Consumer Directed Care Plus (CDC+) connection informational sheet. As a result of these improvements, CDC tripled its enrollment under her leadership. She was part of a Davis Productivity Award and led the transition of fiscal responsibility of the CDC+ program to APD from the state Department of Elder Affairs. She played a lead role in establishing the Statewide Support Coordination rule, policy, and procedure and for initiating the program that provided oversight for the development of training requirements for support coordinators around the state. She was the lead in the development of the Questionnaire for Situational Information (QSI), modified its assessment tool, and ensured it was consistent throughout the state. With the assistance of a federal grant, she developed the CHAMPS toll-free program that provided guidance to any family in search of assistance.
Among those feeling the sting of her loss are Florida’s self-advocates. Denise was a key sponsor for the expansion of self-advocacy projects around the state and encouraged self-advocates to be represented on regional Family Care Councils. She was a huge advocate of Florida Self-Advocates Network’D (FL SAND), making sure APD had a supportive presence at FL SAND’s annual conferences, attending in person when she was able.
FL SAND President Amanda Baker remembered Denise this way: “Self-advocacy was always a priority to Denise. She was a champion for us both professionally and personally, always encouraging those she worked with to consider the view of self-advocates while setting the example in everything she did.” Self-advocate and former APD employee Eileen Phelps agreed: "She embodied the spirit of a self-advocacy ally whenever the need arose."
Denise was a servant leader and mentor to her staff. Her eyes sparkled every time she spoke with one of them. She encouraged and empowered her staff to accomplish whatever task was necessary and trusted they would get the job done. She truly believed life was not about policy and procedures. She made sure her staff prioritized knowing what was going on in the lives of the people they served and identifying whether they were truly making those lives better. The goal of her staff was to help people and their families achieve more and accomplish their dreams.
Denise had a vast array of programmatic knowledge and knew the history of the developmental services program. Staff relied on her to share experiences of past successes and failures, helping them to make sense of what the program was all about. Respect for Denise’s expertise and passion extended beyond APD as well. Arc of Florida CEO Deborah Linton said, "Denise was the ‘go to person’ in the state for answers when you really needed them." Family Café President Lori Fahey added “Saying goodbye to someone like Denise is truly heartbreaking."
Denise had a large family that included her late husband, five children, seven grandchildren, siblings, and nieces and nephews. It was important to the Arnold family that her passion for self-advocacy live on. The Denise Arnold Self-Advocacy Scholarship Fund has been established through the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council. Those wishing to support the fund should contact the FDDC at www.fddc.org / (850) 488-4180.
It is with a heavy heart that we at Florida Self-Advocacy Central remember Denise with immense gratitude and wish her family great peace in knowing the tremendous difference she made in the lives of Floridians with disabilities.
FSACentral would like to thank APD for providing the many details of Denise's career and accomplishments for this story.