BRENDA PREMO (1952- Present) – DMC’s First Executive Director
In 1952, Brenda Premo was born as a Southern California regional native. Her own hand-typed autobiography states her birthplace is straight out of Compton, California. The media has claimed she’s from Long Beach and Downey. There is reason for that, and it is political as Premo navigated through barriers and ‘the foster care system.’ She was born as a low-vision (10% due to damage to an optic nerve) legally blind person with Albinism, a genetic condition. She was determined to make a difference in the world through her own challenges, turning them into being a voice for others.
She was raised by a single mother and a military father constantly on the move. Then she was in ‘the system,’ after a rough experience in three different foster homes after the age of two when her parents divorced. After she was put back in her mother’s overprotective guardianship, Premo realized that she had to make her way to become her own advocate for life, health, survival and to thrive beyond her own circumstances. While this task might seem daunting for her to do just for herself, Premo took it upon herself to dive directly into being of service for everyone else in the same position as an advocate, activist and fearless leader.
Her early childhood was spent inside of special education classes. Premo hated the labeling of such, as she didn’t have cognitive learning disabilities, nor did she see herself with limitations, even if others had thrown them upon her attached to stigmas and ignorance. Determined to ‘prove people wrong” or change people’s perceptions about her capabilities, she took on leadership volunteerism, starting as early as the second grade as both a bike and cafeteria monitor at McGaugh Elementary School. By the time she entered junior high school, she was integrated into mainstream classrooms.
Her journey continued to Marina High School in Huntington Beach, where the slogan was “Live. Breathe. Vikings.” Premo, mirroring the ethos, embarked on a path of living and breathing like a Viking warrior—ready to disrupt the status quo. Infused with boundless energy, exceptional leadership skills, and inner strength, she eagerly embraced the new opportunities that unfolded. Engaging in diverse pursuits, from working with a speech coach to delving into the realms of psychology and anthropology, Premo’s high school years were marked by excitement. This chapter unfolded as she and her mother made Huntington Beach their new home, while her stepfather remained stationed at the military base in Seal Beach.
Her very first mentor and encouraging supporter in being all she could be, was her Psychology Professor Allan Kennedy from Marina High School. He introduced her to the idea that she could attend and graduate from college, something Premo hadn’t yet fathomed to do.
Transitioning from high school to college, Premo challenged many psychologists and counselors with her lived experiences as a person with disabilities showing her ‘can do attitude.’ Secretly, she also questioned herself and is quoted as saying “I did not know if I could make it in college.” It was Kennedy who cheered her onward. With this newfound confidence, she did not hold back questioning the advice and recommendations she received from people without disabilities who thought they knew what was best for a person with disabilities. Her street-smarts and wit made others think from her perspective when she was bold enough to present why something didn’t make sense.
Premo’s advocacy turned into activism through the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) in 1970, she dared to ask questions and challenge what was presented to her. Once a DOR client her activism and determination got her appointed to be Deputy Director of DOR’s Independent Living Division.
Always aware she ultimately took the direction to do all she could as a college student, enrolling in Golden West College in Huntington Beach. It was here she would meet two important educators who would be part of her leadership future, Dr. Paul M. Culton, a hearing Deaf Professor/Counselor ASL interpreter and Dr. Geno M. Vescovi, a Deaf Professor/Counselor who could speak. Both of these faculty members would later become the Original Board Officers, holding the title of Vice-President (Vescovi) and Secretary (Culton) of The Dayle McIntosh Center (DMC) for the Disabled, Orange County’s Independent Living Center. She didn’t know this at the time she was their student, but she would become DMC’s Founding Executive Director and be the one to recruit them to the Board of Officers.
When Premo made her way to California State University Long Beach (CSULB), she met a woman named Kay Goddard who was Dean of Students. It was Goddard who helped facilitate the formation of a disabled students group, observing Premo’s “Lunch Bunch” which grew to about twenty students. The group would become a historic Disabled Students Services Commission (at the time in the 70s, it was called Handicap Students Commission and Handicap Students Services). In this group was Tad Tanaka, a quadriplegic who would eventually become DMC’s Founding Board Officer Treasurer. Together, they both were very active in the Disabled Students Services Commission as well as the Disabled Students Coalition, a California Statewide activist group bridging conversations through the government by way of local political leaders.
Premo and Tanaka became the two most vocal students on campus fighting ferociously for the rights of disabled students, bringing key issues to light for accessibility, fair employment opportunities and getting the needs of disabled students in the headlines at CSULB’s Forty-Niner campus paper and local government media activities on campus. Premo and Tanaka would be the first ones to show up at rallies, they would hold meetings and act as spokespeople on matters being proposed at the time for funding, getting the attention of academic leaders.
Together they would continue moving issues forward within the group and stayed in touch when they went on their independent advocacy and activist paths, as Tanaka moved deeper into work at Cypress College’s Roosevelt Center.
When Premo graduated from CSULB with a degree in Psychology, she would continue her education earning a Master’s Degree in Business at Pepperdine University, Irvine Campus. From here she went on to work for the Orange County Department of Education working directly with both disabled and non-disabled students, and would be appointed to the Human Relations Commission.
Two times, in three distinct contexts, Premo crossed paths with Norma Gibbs. Initially, it was through her Psychology Professor, Mr. Allan Kennedy at Marina High School, where Gibbs held a role in Seal Beach City Government. The second encounter unfolded through a CSULB psychology professor and Dean of Students, Kay Goddard, who, coincidentally, was a friend of Gibbs during her transition to a role in Huntington Beach City Government. Notably, Gibbs also served as a CSULB Psychology Professor. Kay Goddard played a pivotal role in motivating and assisting Premo in establishing the Disabled Students Center (known as HSS at the time) at CSULB during the 1970s. Goddard’s commitment extended further as she became a foundational member of the Board of Directors from its inception, rendering dedicated service in accordance with our Bylaws, persisting until the year 2023.
DMC’s History section picks up from here with the important task force work with the survey, meeting Greg Winterbottom and aligning with that $52,000 grant as a result of the “area assessment” of people with disabilities in Orange County.
In her tireless years of activism and advocacy, Premo has been called a lot of things. From “innovative mover-and-shaker” to “troublemaker” (a term Premo’s rebellious soul loved to share aloud); to “disruptor” to “front line leader” depending on whom you ask. However, no matter what she is called, she perseveres after “calling people, systems, or policies out” when they cross lines of injustice or refuse to work with her to problem-solve a situation.
Her tenacity and voice turned things 180 degrees when she once applied for a job at Orange County Department of Education and was rejected. After combatting the reasons for the rejection with the affirmative action office, she was hired as a disabled services project through the County Department of Education in just three short months.
July 6, 1988, Premo was appointed to National Council on Disability by President Reagan where she served up until 1991. She was invited during President George H. Walker Bush’s term, when the Landmark Rights Bill signed by President Bush. In their eyes, Premo was the front line leader showing up to continue the rights movement. Her early disruption and troublemaking labeling as such had much to do with challenging what was status quo in the late 60s and early-mid 70s when not many voices were heard, therefore Premo while ‘always being nice about it – never apologized for having a much louder voice’ to make things happen according to her fellow activists, professors, counselors and friends.
Premo’s work in the 1990s had her accomplishing many great feats of activism and advocacy showing up and speaking up as she continued fighting for the following:
- Launching the California Assistive Technology System (CATS) initiative to provide people with disabilities information on assistive technologies and related services.
- Advancing the development of informed choice for consumers in vocational rehabilitation.
- Established the State Independent Living Council as a free standing State agency.
- Modernizing the Orientation Center for the Blind.
Often tapped for her wisdom and lived experiences, Premo has been recognized as a lively keynote speaker and subject for many research papers and national disability surveys.
Premo was recognized by Golden West College in 1993 with an award for her Advocacy for the Disabled and she was honored in 1996 with the Challenger Award as a model leader. Premo was also presented the Distinguished Service Visionary award and has been celebrated throughout her career.
Premo became founding director of Western University’s Harris Family Center for Disability and Health Policy, where their motto is to “To Teach, To Heal, Together.” Under her direction, they secured a two-year $670,120 grant for their Center for Disability and Health Professions (CDIHP) from the California Endowment, one of the largest health foundations in the State of California. She is retired now, still making her rounds connecting people and celebrating a life well-lived and served.