Staff Biographies

Catherine Johnson, J.D., M.A. Executive Director, Disability Rights Iowa- Catherine E. Johnson received her Bachelors of Business Administration, Juris Doctor and Master’s in Higher Education degrees from the University of Iowa. Prior to joining the great team at Disability Rights Iowa, Catherine’s work included serving as the Assistant Dean of Students at St. Louis University School of Law, the Director of Student Legal Services at University of Iowa, and a disability rights attorney at Disability Rights Center of Kansas. Before becoming the Executive Director of DRI, she was the Director of the ADA Resource Center for Equity and Accessibility at the University of Kansas. Catherine has devoted her career to impactful civil rights work on behalf of individuals with disabilities. Catherine is honored and excited to be selected as the next Executive Director of Disability Rights Iowa.

Legal Director: Cyndy Miller- Cyndy received her undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa in 1997, graduating with distinction with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. She then received her doctorate of jurisprudence (J.D.) from Drake University Law School in 2000. She was admitted to the State Bar of Iowa in the same year and is now admitted to practice in the state and federal courts of Iowa and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Cyndy provides legal representation and advocacy to individuals with disabilities, especially in the areas of special education, community integration, guardianship, and employment law. She has also added accessibility to her practices as she is currently doing ADA work.

Adult and Investigations Advocate: Charlene Joens– Charlene is an Advocate/Investigator at Disability Rights IOWA. She attended Kirkwood Community College where she completed a certification course in Human Services. She has worked with individuals with disabilities and their families for the past 30 years serving mainly adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities as well as persons with mental illness. Charlene has worked in a variety of settings including vocational and psychosocial rehabilitation programs, residential facilities, and an adult center for community living. Charlene specializes in working with individuals residing in facilities ensuring that their rights are upheld, and they are living self-determined lives. Charlene focuses her advocacy on empowering individuals to define their own direction, recognize their own strengths and fulfill their dreams of living in the homes and communities they choose. Charlene was first inspired and drawn to the field by her late brother David who had an intellectual disability and her mom, a tireless advocate on his behalf.

Paralegal: Jean Herrity– Jean has a Bachelor’s Degree from Southern Illinois University in Administration of Justice, and a Paralegal Certificate from Harper College in Illinois. In addition to her duties as a Legal Assistant where she assists attorneys and advocates with legal work,  Jean works at DRI because she enjoys the challenges of her job and the positive, tangible impact DRI’s services have on people.

Children’s and Investigations Staff Attorney: Nathan Kirstein– Nathan was hired by DRI in October of 2012. He specializes in representing students in special education cases and has provided training to Iowa attorneys who are also interested in representing students in such cases. He also specializes in monitoring and investigating various facilities in which youth with disabilities reside and providing individual/systemic advocacy to residents who have had their federal or state rights violated. Prior to his position at DRI, Nathan was a sole practitioner, taking court-appointed criminal and juvenile cases, as well as private family, landlord/tenant, and estate planning/probate cases. He graduated in the Spring of 2011 from Drake University Law School where he interned for Iowa Legal Aid, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, and the Children’s Rights Clinic. During law school, he also worked as a Program Coordinator for a middle school and high school gender-specific after-school boys program at Children and Family Urban Movement. Prior to attending law school, Nathan was a Construction Engineer for several years but decided law would be better suited to his passion for seeking justice for those whose voices have been historically marginalized so it is not a surprise that he found his way to DRI.

Adult and Investigations Staff Attorney: Scott Lyon– Scott graduated from the University of Iowa College of Law with a Juris Doctor after completing a B.A. in Journalism at the University of Iowa. During law school, he worked at the Assistive Technology Clinic in the UI College of Law and as a Legal Intern for the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Prior to college he served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Scott now specializes in substitute decision making issues, Medicaid benefits, and disability discrimination in housing, employment, and public entities/accommodations at Disability Rights IOWA. He pursued a position at DRI because of his humbling and rewarding experiences in the Assistive Technology Clinic. After his time there, Scott decided that he wanted to make a career out of assisting people with disabilities.

Adult and Investigations Staff Attorney: Emily Ehlers- Emily holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Iowa and received her Juris Doctor from the University of Iowa College of Law. She is licensed to practice law in Colorado and Iowa. During law school Emily was actively involved with the Citizen Lawyer Program, where she volunteered for the Innocence Project of Iowa. As a law student she participated in the Public Defender Clinic as well as interned with the Wake County Public Defender’s Office in Raleigh, North Carolina. Following law school Emily worked as Deputy Public Defender in Grand Junction, Colorado before returning home to Iowa. Emily is passionate about helping individuals with disabilities and mental illness within the criminal justice system and her work at DRI primarily focuses on assisting inmates in Iowa’s prisons and jails.

Adult and Investigations Staff Attorney: Whitney Driscoll– Whitney graduated with distinction from the University of Iowa College of Law with a Juris Doctor in 2012, after completing a B.A. in Psychology at the University of Nevada. She joined DRI in 2013 and is admitted to practice law in the state and federal courts of Iowa. During her legal education, Whitney earned the William S. Boyd Award for Public Service with the Highest Honors, volunteered for the Skylark Project, and worked as a prosecuting intern for the Johnson County Attorney’s Office. She also served as Senior Symposium Editor for the Journal of Gender, Race & Justice, and is a published author. At DRI Whitney serves on the Investigations Team and primarily investigates allegations of abuse and neglect of individuals with disabilities in facilities in Iowa, including prisons and jails. Whitney is passionate about serving people with disabilities, and her favorite guiding quote is by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Children’s and Investigations Staff Attorney: Charissa Flege – Charissa graduated from Drake University Law School with Highest Honors in 2014 and her volunteer work during law school earned a Public Service Certificate. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in both English and Spanish from Iowa State University. She has always had a passion for serving others, which is what led her to the law. Charissa joined DRI in September 2019 as a staff attorney. Prior to joining DRI, Charissa was Co-Director of Legal Services at the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, where she represented survivors of violent crime in immigration and civil law proceedings and oversaw the Community Lawyers Project partnership at the University of Iowa Law School. Disability advocacy has always been a part of her personal life & she is excited to direct her passion for this work to her position at DRI. Outside of work, Charissa is interested in social justice work and learning about new cultures and languages, and she travels whenever she gets a chance. When she’s not at work, you can find her spending time with her family, enjoying the outdoors or reading a good book.

PABSS Advocate: Emmanuel Smith – Emmanuel Attended Drake University where they completed their Bachelors in Political Science. Born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, they have held a lifelong interest in disability and political action to improve the rights of disabled people everywhere. Their work at DRI focuses on barriers to employment, disability discrimination in the workplace, and advocating for effective employment services for people with disabilities.  Emmanuel is a PABSS Advocate because they believe that employment offers a security and purpose which all people with disabilities deserve. For Emmanuel, the disabled experience is a privilege, and one which prompts endless discovery.

WIPA Coordinator and PABSS Advocate: Tammy Crouch – Tammy received a Bachelors of Science degree in Human Resources Management from Bellevue University. Previous experience includes working as a Disability Navigator, Employment Specialist, and Disability Resource Coordinator with an emphasis on Benefits Planning for Beneficiaries receiving Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance.  She received her CWIC certification from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2014. Tammy has also had the opportunity to be involved with many projects related to Ticket to Work, Iowa Medicaid Waivers, Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation, and Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. She is very active in her community and serves on several committees that work to address barriers to housing, transportation, education, and employment related situations.

WIPA Project Director, Community Work Incentives Coordinator: Mistie Johnson–Mistie holds a MBA from Walden University, and follows her passion for serving people with disabilities both personally and professionally.  Having several family members who live life to the fullest everyday with disabilities,   she works tirelessly to ensure that they have a voice through a strong connection with the disability and advocacy arena.  

Previously, Mistie worked in higher education providing job placement services to students and graduates. Mistie lead efforts to reduce employment barriers for transition age youth and young adults with disabilities by collaborating with local employers while working as an Employment Training Specialist within the WIA Youth Program. During her time with IowaWORKS North Iowa, Mistie also facilitated that Region’s Employment Network, providing support for Ticket to Work Program participants, and is a former Disability Navigator under the Navigator Grant for Iowa.  

WIPA Community Work Incentives Coordinator: Jenny Lynes – Jenny’s passion for social justice is influenced by her parents who were employed in the fields of higher education and social work. Prior to joining the DRI team, Jenny worked in a number of roles at Wartburg College and the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), including accessibility/disability services, admissions, orientation, financial aid, and academic advising. Her most recent role was the Student Accessibility Services (SAS) Coordinator at UNI, where she oversaw the day-to-day management of the department while supporting students connected with SAS through determination and implementation of access plans and advocated for greater accessibility for individuals with disabilities across campus.

Jenny earned a Bachelor of Arts in American and World History Education from Wartburg College and a Master of Arts in Postsecondary Education: Student Affairs from the University of Northern Iowa. She also is an ADA Coordinator through the Great Plains ADA Center and the University of Missouri’s ADA Coordinator Training Certification Program. Jenny enjoys staying active through kayaking and cycling, being the go-to foodie for the Cedar Valley, and going on adventures with Remy, her yellow Labrador.

Operations Manager/PAVA Advocate: Katie Vande Vorde – A graduate of Iowa State University, Katie has been working at Disability Rights IOWA for over ten years. During this time, she has learned the ins and outs of her position as well as how to anticipate the agency’s daily needs. Katie hopes that by doing her job well and keeping the agency running smoothly she will allow DRI’s Advocates and Attorneys to better serve Iowans with disabilities. Katie is also an Advocate with the Protection and Advocacy for Voter Access (PAVA) program, and is passionate about ensuring that voting is accessible for all Iowans.

Advocate/Intake Specialist Jami Johns – Since 2004, Jami Johns has worked in the social services field, dedicating her career to advocacy for the elderly, persons with physical and developmental disabilities and the economically disadvantaged in several states. For Jami, caring for the aging and persons with disabilities is close to home. Growing up with family with disabilities provided her with firsthand experience with the difficulties that these important members of society face.

Director of Finance: Jim Kain – Jim received his MBA from the University of Iowa with a focus in Finance and his BS in Accounting from Iowa State University. He has worked in the accounting and finance fields for both small and large companies. After undergraduate, Jim worked for Kohler Company in Wisconsin as both an Internal Auditor and an Accounting Associate. He was able to travel to many exciting locations to conduct audits of the various businesses and subsidiaries of Kohler Company. After moving back to Iowa, Jim worked as the Business Manager of Echo Valley Country Club in Norwalk for five years. It was after this that Jim went to the University of Iowa for its full-time MBA program. Shortly after graduation from Iowa, Jim began working for LCS in Des Moines where he served as a Finance Manager and an Asset Manager helping support the many senior living communities that LCS owns and operates throughout the nation. Jim was thrilled to accept the Director of Finance role at Disability Rights Iowa and be part of an organization that has such a strong mission in our community. Jim enjoys golfing and travelling with his wife.