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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

A Warrior for Human Rights: Dohn Hoyle

October 5, 2017 

There are few issues under the Capitol Dome impacting persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities that have not been influenced by the passion, drive, and commitment of Dohn Hoyle.  For decades, Hoyle, the long-serving, now semi-retired Executive Director of The Arc of Michigan, has been in the thick of the fight to assure persons with disabilities have the same rights as all Americans.

A respected leader and innovator in the disability movement, Dohn helped to rewrite the Michigan Mental Health Code to include person-centered planning and to eliminate the term “mental retardation.”  He was instrumental in the closure of specialized nursing homes for children and people with developmental disabilities, and the Regional Centers for People with Developmental Disabilities in Michigan. His work made Michigan the largest state in the nation to shutter state institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Dohn has provided leadership on issues regarding the overuse of guardianships, supporting person-centered planning, self-determination and inclusive education. He partnered with Lt. Governor Calley to end the inhumane practice of secluding and restraining Michigan school children.  For decades, Dohn has convened the Howell Group, a loose-knit confederation of advocates across Michigan who intend to see that people with disabilities have the opportunity to experience what we know is right and they desire. 

Advocates Concerned with Integrated Care is a  group of disability organizations representing the concerns of persons who are eligible for Medicaid and Medicare who receive supports and services to maintain themselves in the community with regard to Michigan’s efforts to establish an Integrated Care Plan.

Seeing First Hand

As a former state mental health director and state superintendent of schools, I interacted with Dohn for decades around human rights policy issues.  He was a pioneer in pushing for inclusive education, person-centered planning and bringing self-determination to Michigan.  We first met in the late 70’s over the push to close the misnamed, “Plymouth Center for Human Development.”  Dohn instigated the first lawsuit against Plymouth Center where abuse was the norm, and helped establish what was then a major thrust forward at the time:  6-bed group homes in the community. We have since learned, as a result of the continual push by Dohn that people have a right to “live their life – their way” and not receive a life sentence in a group home– if they chose another living option. Dohn is constantly asking how we can do better by our fellow man.

Praise and Thanks Roll In

Dohn Hoyle

When I thought of writing this reflection on what one person has meant to so many, I had to significantly narrow the list of people who wanted to weigh in – which is a tribute unto itself.  Here are a few: 

  • Bob Sheehan, the CEO of the Michigan Association of Community Mental Health Boards says, “Dohn Hoyle, for decades, has been the voice of justice and of reason, speaking truth to power, with courage, clarity, and selflessness.  His ability to understand complex statutes, regulations, and practices; their impact on Michigan’s most vulnerable and resilient residents; and to advocate arm-in-arm with those persons for what is right, for what is just is second to none.  His tireless efforts, over these decades, has ensured that Michigan’s public intellectual and developmental disability services and supports system is one of the most person-centered in the nation.  I count myself among the hundreds who look to Dohn for our example of advocacy at its finest.   I have been honored to work alongside him in this struggle”.
  • Lt. Governor Brian Calley echoes, “Dohn Hoyle has been a real inspiration to me and so many others.  His lifetime of advocacy has a made a difference in ways that it would be hard to capture with mere words.  It would be impossible to thank him enough for his part in making Michigan a more inclusive state.”
  • Elmer Cerano, CEO of Michigan Protection and Advocacy, reminds us, “For the past 5 decades Dohn Hoyle has been a consistent vision, understanding and uncompromising passion, advocating for people with disabilities.  Don’t get me wrong.  At times, Dohn Hoyle has a real skill in ruffling a lot of feathers.  But time after time, and issue after issue, he has been proven undoubtedly correct.  Once, I mentioned to him that thirty years ago I didn’t like him and now I like him, Why? He looked at me and calmly said, “Elmer, you grew up over the past 30 years!”  I knew it then and I absolutely know it now…Michigan has exceeded the nation in Special Education, Integrated Competitive Employment, Community Inclusion, Medicaid, Support Services, Freedom and Rights Protection, Person Center Planning and Self-Determination.  All can be traced over the decades to Dohn Hoyle’s life work and passion.  If he has made you uncomfortable, be appreciative for his willingness to challenge our thinking.  He has been the guy with the stamina to hang in there when the water got rough.  Dohn Hoyle remains the constant rock.”
  • Liz Bauer, (“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.”, a former state board of education member and a powerhouse of an advocate in her own right emphasizes, “Dohn has been, for decades, an advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities; particularly men, women, and youth with intellectual/developmental disabilities. His efforts have given them voice and opportunities to take charge of their lives and determine their preferred future.   As their voices grew louder, he worked to remove barriers to full participation in community and supported policies and practices that fostered their independence, inclusion in school and community, and productivity. Dohn realizes that progress does not depend on the development of a single policy or enactment of one law, however, important and life-changing it may be. He knows that gains are temporary unless advocacy is sustained over time.  His greatest quality may be his vision of a self-determined life for all people and his persistence in advocating that goal.” 

  • Jim Haveman, (A State Leader: Jim Haveman the long-serving department of health director stated, “I have worked with ARC and Dohn Hoyle for over 4 decades.  We agreed with each other as much as we disagreed, but our conversation was always civil and respectful.  We listened to each other and always left the door open for the next conversation.  Our common desire always was what is best and advances policy and financing for consumers.  That was our “North Star”.  Advocacy takes tenacity and boldness and Dohn continues to practice them well.”
  • Jim Dehem, President/CEO Community Living Services who serves and supports thousands of persons with disabilities in the community reflects, “I have known Dohn Hoyle for 40 years and am well aware of his contributions to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as their families.  He has fiercely and tirelessly devoted his time and efforts to the most important policies and practices of deinstitutionalization, full inclusion in the community and schools, person-centered planning, self-determination, alternatives to guardianship, human rights and social justice for people with disabilities.  He is not only respected for his advocacy in Michigan but throughout the country as well.  He boldly represents these values against all challenges and has been a huge reason for Michigan’s leadership in this field being recognized nationally.”

I know Dohn Hoyle “to be a selfless and passionate man that holds the interests and speaks for the voices of 1000’s of people with disabilities in Michigan, our nation and the world.  If you ever wanted someone to help you in a fight for justice, it would be Dohn Hoyle,” says John Kinch, Executive Director, Macomb County CMH. 

U.S Senator, Debbie Stabenow sums up Dohn’s life’s work this way, “Dohn Hoyle committed his life to advocating for the rights of people with disabilities and individuals living with mental illness.  Thanks to his hard work and dedication, there are more awareness and support services today to help people with disabilities live independently and participate fully in their communities.”

The Battle Continues

Sadly, Dohn’s work of providing human dignity and assuring the rights of people who have disabilities are upheld is under renewed threats.  The state continues to push to “profitize” public mental health services which many fear and facts bear out will unwind much of the gains Dohn Hoyle and other advocates and parents have fought so long and hard to assure.  The fight continues.  The Legislature would be wise to listen to Dohn Hoyle and to understand what has been accomplished in Michigan for persons with disabilities and not to roll back that progress.

Be assured, those that know Dohn know he will stand on the right side of history till the bitter end in advocating for what is right and adds value and makes a difference in the lives of people with disabilities.  To live a life that has uplifted so many is a noble calling.  It has happened here under our Capitol Dome by one man who has inspired many, Dohn Hoyle.

Tom Watkins is the president and CEO of TDW and Associates, consulting in the US and China. He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


October 4, 2017 · Filed under Tom Watkins



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