November 7: Today on TownHall Karla Arzola, Chief Information Officer at Rocky Mountain Human Services speaks with Jose Torres-Vega, Information Technology Manager, Volunteer Non-Attorney Advocate & Volunteer Lobbyist at Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. Born and raised in Guatemala, Jose's journey weaves through an impressive palette of identities - a disability advocate, a multilingual attorney, an IT manager, and a policy influencer. Amidst the digital and health inequities exacerbated by COVID-19, how has Jose leveraged his diverse skillset to promote health equity in rural Colorado? As Jose narrates his experiences in fighting for civil rights, leading technological innovation in nonprofits, and working closely with the local government, we are prompted to reflect on pivotal questions. Can technology be harnessed to democratize access to healthcare and resources? In what creative ways can we bridge the physical and digital divide plaguing our communities? Avowing from personal experience, Jose exemplifies how disability inclusion in technology can foster transformative solutions and policies.
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with the pandemic
having to be able to interact without having to go to a place or be in person with someone the local government, they were reaching out to us.
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Hi, everyone. Welcome to one more episode of This Week Health. This month, we are celebrating Hispanic heritage. And as you all know, or may not know, I was born and raised in Mexico. And during this time, I'd like to recognize our Hispanic talent, today's guest is no exception. Jose is a technology leader for the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition, and he has been part of our community for a few years now.
He was born and raised in Guatemala. where he finished his degree in law and computer science. He speaks four languages. He's a board member of Grupo Vida. He is the chairman board director of RMHS. He's a co chair of the Colorado Department of Healthcare and Financing. And I could go on and on, by the way.
He is extremely innovative and he is a big advocate for our representative community. So, Jose, welcome to our segment. Thank you for sharing this space with us. Thank you a pleasure. It's really a pleasure and an honor. And I want to start with asking you, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
And yeah, just start with that. Let's start
with that. You did a good job already. So, yes, I was born in Guatemala. My name is Jose Torres Vega. And for the last 10 years, I have represented the disability community. For the last 15 years, I have represented Latino. Disability community with El Grupo Vida, with CCDC, with ADAPT, the Colorado Medicaid program, and many other, subtasks doing that work, you know.
So I'm an IT manager I am also a webmaster, a programmer. I'm an attorney advocate. I chairman for two boards so, you know, I do a lot of things eh, and I do them because I do believe that when you are given privilege, you should use it to help others. And I was given the privilege of
becoming easy to study for me, learning things for me easy. So why not? Why not use that too much?
That's amazing, Jose, and that's what I thought it was important to have this conversation with you because you're doing a ton of things in collaboration with the city, and we'll talk about those projects in a second. But before we get to that, I wanted to talk about your journey from where you came from, because you and I talked a while ago and you shared with me, you know, I would have not left my country.
I was happy there and you have, you had so many accomplishments when you were there, but you were forced to move to the States because of the situation of Guatemala, the point that you moved. and also you were, since you were little, you were diagnosed with cerebral, you see.
I knew it. Should be real policy. Policy. Yes. Thank you. And in spite of that, you have done many things, right? You would talk about your career. And so , that has never been an impediment for you to do the things that you wanted to do, but it wasn't easy, right?
Either. It wasn't easy. There was a journey. So walk us through it. Cause you mentioned, you know, it's like jumping from school to school and then. coming to the states and validating your studies, and it was just not easy. But why don't you tell us that story?
Yeah, for sure. I was born in the late 70s, so 1978.
And in those times in Guatemala, we would have our worst years of the war.
It's often described as an internal war, but it was really an external war.
And that, of course, made things very complicated, because there was a lot of violence, there was a lot of poverty, no
jobs, no... No resources for the government to run programs for people with disabilities. Education was starting to decline when I was a kid. Before that, we did have a really cool, really good... education system, but it had started to decline when I was a kid and because of my cerebral palsy and because I had to depend on others to be
dependent, if you will I could not go to a normal school, so I homeschooled for most of my life Until I completed what in the United States is called the high school, right? Which for us is a bachelor's degree. So, because during the first years of my, what we call high school, we call it secundaria.
I had to hide several times. Because of the war and because of our intellectual and political stance, that were against very much the government and the United States in that era, from that perspective, from Guatemala.
I had to abandon school twice for an entire year. So I decided to compensate by doing two years in one, and then another two years in one. And in the process I chose to not do the traditional bachelor's degree, which we call a bachelor's degree But use those years to do the, what was allowed back then already, as a computer scientist and as a in law.
It wasn't yet a lawyer, because a lawyer requires a university. years, right? the equivalent here, it will be a legal assistant. But I was fully capable of performing those tasks. And then for university, I did go to the campus, the National University or Universidades San Carlos, which is free.
So there, I decided to do. What we call a license. Here, the equivalent would be a master's, and also law, so I became a lawyer. I'm not, just by the way, I'm not licensed in the United States. I became a computer scientist like, licensed to work in anywhere. So, after that, I came here, and I found out, and my stories were not able to validate here. And when I started to dig into what I needed to do in order to validate them I would have had to spend not only years, but also a lot of money that I didn't have to go through the courses that were necessary.
And I say necessary in order for me to prove that I had a computer science degree and A's. Legal degree, right? And I didn't like the idea of becoming a lawyer United States style, meaning that a lawyer here has to be specialized on one thing or maybe two things. We see law as a general statement.
Yes, we do have maybe a niche. That we like especially. But we don't become a lawyer for one thing. Ah, it's funny because I have a friend who is a lawyer and he says, I'm a one trick pony. I'm not. I'm not a one trick pony. I can do anything in legal. Not here in the United I could. 📍 📍 We'll get back to our show in just a minute. Having a child with cancer is one of the most painful and difficult situations a family can face. In 2023, to celebrate five years of This Week Health, we have partnered with Alex's Lemonade Stand all year long with a goal of raising 50, 000 from our community.
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We believe in the generosity of our community and we thank you in advance. Now back to our show. 📍 Yeah, that is very interesting. And that's, again, I, to me, when you were telling me everything that you've done and, the
fact that you're here, and you have dedicated your, like you said, your knowledge in your connections and your network and your ability to help people I mean, that's what you've done for the last, you know, few years you've been here.
Right? So you got here, you're like, I have to get them, you know, have to figure it out how to continue to do what I like to do. And you're part of all these organizations, and you're part of the one that I work. and so always trying to lead with obviously thinking about people, but also bringing your innovative side to do things better.
Talk about the work that you're currently doing with the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition. What is your main role? What are some of the things, fun things that you've done there for the organization?
Oh, those are fun. So let me start with this. In order to get here, where I am right now, I had to spend seven years waiting for my paperwork to come through.
Which I called it, my years in prison. Because I was home, not able to do much. I was able to do a GED, just so that I could have that baseline, right? Through the Community College of Denver. And, they were like, why are you doing this? iT's funny because in there I started to make connections.
That's where I started to meet people at Grupo Vida, meet people who work for the Disability Center at Auraria campus. That gave me connections to CCBC and ADAPT ultimately. But I had to spend all of those years doing mostly nothing. So I dedicated myself to even improving more my knowledge in computer science.
My knowledge in programming. I learned all the languages that are required for Linux systems, for example, on my own. And I started writing political blogs. In websites that that were controversial and continue to be controversial. that was kind of like the pre sequel to what I'm doing now.
Okay. Alright, so. I started to being asked to be a keynote speaker for not a board member yet, but just a keynote speaker or a guest presenter for some topic, you know? With time I had some issues because I didn't have the support that I needed. just becoming a resident, I had to still wait five years in order to be eligible for services like Medicaid, because let's face it, right in United is super, super expensive to pay out of pocket for some of the things that a person with means close to deal.
I started working towards that, that's when I met.
My mom had gotten sick. She was my natural support and my only support for many years of my childhood and even as a young adult. And she couldn't care for me anymore, at least not to the degree that she was able to do until then. So I was forced to look for resources. My older sister helped me.
We found Atlantis, and that's how I got connected to ADAPT. So there, I met the national leader of ADAPT, and she took a liking. And she asked me to participate in a national election. I didn't know what the hell a national election was back then. And I was like, well, you know what? I owe you big.
You got me a section in voucher. You got me a tenants that are more expensive and that I can pay out of pocket. You know what? Whatever I can do, I'll do. Just tell me when and how high I not jump. So went to Washington, D. C. got arrested protesting for civil rights for people with disabilities. I got arrested again in front of the national CMS building.
So, you know, it started there. And with the years I started to take stands, stronger stands. So it was not enough to, it was no longer enough to represent blindly organizations. I was taking ethical stands. And so in one instance, I had actually fight with, with the adopt leadership because I took a stand and when my friend Josh Win, who now works for the Lieutenant Governor, in Colorado, her, and because he, he was there in the meeting, he called the Big Deal, Julie Kin.
And told her, you know, Julie, I have kind of bad news, I think. Jose had a fight with Don Russell from ADAPT. And it's like, what about this and this and this? He took a stand. And he said, give me Jose right now on the phone. And so he put me on the speakerphone and we were talking. In the middle of downtown Denver in the streets uh, Judy says, Explain to me why you took this time.
And I tell her, well, providers are not following the ada A why will we give them a free pass? At least they have to provide with the minimum that ADA says that is the, the boss, right? And she said, Jose, I like you. You know what? You may represent TCDC as you see fit. From now on. I was like, you really said that?
Because I already knew about Julia Veskin, everybody knew Julia Veskin. And it was like, oh Jesus Christ, Julia Veskin is putting that weight on me? That must mean something, right? So, I took... A job later as, well, first only a volunteer for two years but eventually I was hired as a community organizer and I started doing some work, that adventure took me for the first time to save a Medicaid benefit that was for parents who get paid to take care of their kids.
Because otherwise, there's no one who could take care of the kids, and if they don't get paid, they don't have an income. So, you know, I use my charm, I lobby behind the scenes with the director of DHS back then, and I told her, If you do this to me, I'll be your best ally. she told me, let's have a private meeting.
accomplished it. Because I was being very instructive. I took a lot of people, moms with kids crying and everything. to the MSD board, board meeting, the Medical Services Board meeting. And so, Judy was like, you are an excellent doctor, there you go. So she hired me. Eventually, our IT manager left. And she told me, you want that position?
You'll be perfect for that. And, you'll be a manager. I manager. Cool, I'll take it. So I took it and ever since I've been doing that, but as an IT manager for a small nonprofit you are not just, you are a engineer. You are a video editor. specialist in, in electronic accessibility and server management.
The infrastructure development, you know, everything. So also, for example, when I entered ccbt, we were tiny. We didn't even have a server infrastructure. In the last five years I built that and now we have a full domain with all kinds of security systems and you know, it's awesome how far I have been able to take this into the technological future.
And you know what
the fun part of your job is that you get to do your advocacy. And you get to do your tech part. So you have the best of both worlds, which is awesome. And we get to work with you, which is amazing, because you represent, again, it's not just about talking, like a lot of things that we need to do.
I mean, you understand the complexity and the challenges. And you're pushing for those policies that can help, again, those people that are not represented that need assistance, right? And going to that, you mentioned to me that there's an initiative that you're leading that is technology equity for Colorado. And what are you talking about the benefits? Because I know it's, it's people, you know,, not everybody has access to technology or healthcare or all those things. And this is what it's all about, right? Providing with people with the tools or the technology. That the people would need to either for education, but why don't you tell us more about it?
Yes, and this is not, this is going slow. So, so there's Little news, I guess, I should say. However, the news that are out there already are fantastic. So, it started because in 2020 we realized, Oh my God, we don't have to depend even more, you know, with the pandemic, interconnectivity, virtual world.
Having to be able to interact without having to go to a place or be in person with someone your own protection and that person's protection. So, they were reaching out to us. The government, the local government, the governor of politics was reaching out directly to us.
What the hell do we do? How do we adapt to such a drastic change in reality? And we said, easy, follow us. Let's do this. We gave them steps. Some of those steps. Where, okay, so providers, for example, like Rocky Impulse and Human Services, have already the ability to telehealth,
right? That's going to stay alive. That's going to keep clients having their benefits, having interaction with their case manager, and yet...
However, some of them don't even have a computer or a reliable internet connection in order to do so, right? So what do we do about that? In that moment was when Lieutenant Governor Primavera was reaching out to George Winter. who was back then a volunteer for CCDC and ADAPT and also for CBDC. This is the Council.
Developmental Disabilities was hired by the governor's office to lead the independent...
The community leading independent center, basically, of Colorado. It was a huge deal, right? Well, that was no surprise to us, because Josh had been the designer of the Medicaid buy in for Colorado, and many other things that he has accomplished. So it wasn't a surprise for us, but that gave us an in in the government.
So, two years later he communicates with someone at the office, some really high office of the governor, and they reach out to me, by name, Jose Mr. Josh Winter, asked us to reach out to you. Because he says that you are an expert in remote and this is the information. We have this many billion dollars uh, and this many years to develop a new plan for health equity.
Meaning to bring internet and to bring inexpensive technology to rural Colorado. So, I participated in the first meetings and they were like, oh my god, I really didn't know. Your stuff. we, I mean you, we are talking about working with Comcast, working with them, working with Microsoft, working with minor providers with T-Mobile, working with Verizon.
We with both mobile. All those companies, in order to come up with solutions, creative solutions to bring Internet and on extensive access to technology to rural Colorado for the first time in history.
That's amazing. Jose, seriously I'm so excited again that you're part of tech team as a community, right?
Again, you first hand you talk about the needs and the reason that you mentioned that we talked to you is like, we've been doing this for years, you know, when people have disabilities, we have to figure out a way to function, we can go to the office every day. So when the pandemic happened, you're like, this is easy people, you know, this is what we need to do, right?
it for years. So for you it was easy, for us, it was like, how are we going to function as a community. But anyway, we have a few minutes left. Anything else that you want to share with us for, like, just closing remarks, anything you want to share with us in terms of ways to accomplish better things together, whatever you want to say to our audience.
we are in a historical moment, I think, especially in Colorado, because we have for the first time the governor who is gay, who truly believes in human rights, not just for the LGBTQ plus community, but also for the disability community, for the Latino community BiPAP. I'm taking advantage of that.
I'm using that.
And just, there are some opportunities that have been presented to me, and I have said yes to I've been, I'm actually doing some work to for BIPOC communities. And to the point that HICPAS, Department of Healthcare, where Medicaid is managed for Colorado, has an initiative.
For health equity, and it is their full intention. To have people like me, people like Julissa Soto, people like, you know, for example, you, I'm not saying you specifically, but someone like you, you know, give them input to make true changes for the first time in history. And even though we are facing a crisis, because we have more influx, I should say.
The city, the state, is actually working towards protecting them rather than discriminating them or saying no to them, which is a very unique situation to be in. And all of that makes me happy because all those keep me really busy.
Yeah, I'm sure we're going to keep you really busy.
And I really want to thank you for sharing all this. opportunities that we have as, again, as a country and as a community to collaborate, to help people. And thank you so much again for the time. I really appreciate it. I'll talk to you soon because we'll be seeing each other.
All right. Thank you, Jose. My pleasure.
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