Staff Biographies


Disability Rights Iowa staff-photo-nov-2016

BACK ROW (from left to right): Charlene Joens, Tai Tomasi, Jami Johns, Scott Lyon, Tammy Crouch, Nathan Kirstein; MIDDLE (from left to right): Mistie Johnson, Emily Ehlers, Whitney Driscoll, Jean Herrity, Beth Rydberg, Nathan Kirstein, Beth Bydberg; FRONT (from left to right): Cyndy Miller, Jane Hudson, Emmanuel Smith. (Not pictured, Linda Firkins, Katie Vande Vorde and Mark Leamen)

Jane Hudson, J.D., Executive Director, Disability Rights Iowa
A Michigan native, Jane studied Psychology and History at Kalamazoo College. During her studies, she had several internships working with children with disabilities, including children with visual and hearing impairments and intellectual disabilities. Jane then attended law school at the University of Toledo. While in law school, she was on law review and moot court, interned for a federal judge, worked at the Toledo Legal Aid Society, and was a law clerk at Lewis and Roca in Phoenix, Arizona. After law school, she returned to Lewis and Roca as an associate, where she did pro bono work for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, the protection and advocacy agency for Arizonans with disabilities. She later joined the Center as an attorney in the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness (PAIMI) program. In the mid-1990s, Jane joined the Maricopa County District Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, focusing on employment and disability law. She also worked with the County’s Human Resources Department to set up a “one-stop” case management system for employees with disabilities. She subsequently moved to Washington D.C., where she worked as a Senior Staff Attorney with the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) for more than ten years. She focused on employment issues, abuse and neglect investigations, and the reduction of restraint and seclusion. She has been the Executive Director of Disability Rights Iowa for four years and loves her job. Her favorite quotation about human and individual rights is from Robert Michael Hensel: “Let my life be a reflection of the endless amount of ability that exists in each and every one of us.”

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.

Children’s and Investigations Advocate: Beth Rydberg- Beth earned a B.S. in Family Services from Iowa State University and has worked with individuals with disabilities and their families in residential, community, and school settings. Beth focuses on the areas of special education, juvenile justice, and other children’s issues at Disability Rights IOWA. Outside of the office, she continues her passion for children with work as the manager of a community garden for a local food pantry and founding member of Umafasha, an outreach center for refugees from East Africa. She is the parent of 4 adult children including sons with disabilities that are living independently in the community.

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.”

PABSS Staff Attorney: Tai Tomasi – Originally from Vermont, Tai is one of 27 siblings adopted from throughout the world. Tai studied Political Science, Legal Studies and French at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville. She got a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Utah and then moved to Iowa to work with people with disabilities. She greatly enjoyed this work and wanted to affect change in disability law and policy. She attended the University of Iowa College of Law where she continued her disability rights work as a student writer for the Journal of Gender, Race & Justice, as a law clerk at Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley California, and in the assistive technology clinic at the University of Iowa. One of her favorite quotations about human rights is “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” By James Baldwin.

PABSS Advocate: Emmanuel Smith– Emmanuel Attended Drake University where he completed his Bachelors in Political Science. Born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, he has held a lifelong interest in disability and political action to improve the rights of disabled people everywhere. His 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 he believes 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 Attorney : Elena Greenberg  – Elena majored in Psychology and English at the University of Iowa where she earned her B.A. degree.  She graduated with honors from Drake University and received her J.D. in May 2009.  She was admitted to the State Bar of Iowa in October of 2009.  Elena has experience in private practice with a focus on criminal, juvenile, and family law and was previously an Assistant Attorney General in the Child Support Recovery Unit.  Elena is a trained Mediator, Collaborative Law Attorney, and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst.  Elena joined Disability Rights Iowa in 2017 and is pursuing her CWIC certification from Virginia Commonwealth University.  Elena provides legal representation, advocacy, and benefits planning for people with disabilities with a focus on eliminating barriers to employment.

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.  

Finance Director: Linda Firkins– Linda Firkins is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and has worked in the non-profit sector as a CFO and Director of Finance for more than five years. She works at DRI because she believes in the mission of the agency and wants to assist individuals with disabilities by supporting the staff who work with them.

PAVA and Assistive Technology Advocate: Mark Leamen– Mark graduated from Illinois State University with a B.S. in Accounting. He has held several accounting positions over the years, including a five-year career as Accounting Manager for the city of Marshalltown, Iowa, just before coming to Disability Rights IOWA. Mark has mostly worked at companies whose sole motivation was making money. At DRI, he feels that he and the rest of the staff are making a difference in people’s lives and doing some good. Mark is a member of the Protection and Advocacy for Voter Access (PAVA) team and also does work under the Protection and Advocacy for Assistive Technology program at Disability Rights Iowa. Mark is a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln and any of his quotations, including, “I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.”

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 Oklahoma, West Virginia and Iowa. For Jami, caring for the aging and persons with disabilities is close to home. Growing up with two Deaf parents and a family with a history of dementia provided her with firsthand experience with the difficulties that these important members of society face. Jami holds a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Central Oklahoma.