ACHIEVA breaks cycles of isolation and segregation with empowerment


ACHIEVA likes to be ahead of the curve, even if that means sometimes it has to pull back.

“We’re never satisfied with the way that things are,” says Marsha Blanco, president and CEO of the ACHIEVA family of organizations. “We’re a bunch of dreamers, and when we see a problem, a team of us will sit down and come up with ideas about how to solve that problem for individuals and their families.”

Family members who wanted to ensure their children with disabilities had the same chances in life as other children founded ACHIEVA 65 years ago.

The organization has a broad reach with 110 locations. It provides lifelong support to people with disabilities, whether that means therapy at birth or helping people find a job or independent housing.

“We listen carefully to what individuals with disabilities and their families would like to see in support and services, and then we often times design those from scratch,” Blanco says.

ACHIEVA’s mission is to promote inclusion of individuals with disabilities in local community life, which can be more challenging in rural areas.

Until about 60 years ago, people with significant disability were either institutionalized or lived at home with parents or relatives with little or no community support, Blanco says. For example, students with significant disabilities didn’t gain the right to free public education until 1975.

In the relatively new field of inclusion, ACHIEVA is always pushing boundaries.

“Years ago, we attempted, through a lot of local organizations such as fire halls, to have adult guys with disabilities hang out and become a part of that cultural experience, and I think that we were pushing the button before the community was really ready for that,” she says. “So we had to step back a little, and now we do quite a lot of that.”

Matching needs

To be innovative — and solve problems — Blanco says it comes down to staying close to your customers.

“The customer is always going to weed you toward the types of support in our case, or products in other cases, that they’re going to most want,” she says. “We’re a very, very family-oriented organization, so being close with family members and individuals — and they, of course, are our customers — just naturally leads one to know what they most want in their lives.”

Once you understand their needs, it’s incumbent upon an organization to find new and better ways to meet those needs, says Blanco, who considers her job a cross between school superintendent and hospital administrator.