Jessie Cheung, Staff Photographer

Gretchen Knauff will serve as the city’s next director of Disability Services, the city announced on Friday.

Knauff has had a 30-year career in disability work, and most recently served as executive director of Disability Rights Connecticut. She will take over as director from Michelle Duprey, who now works as the city’s deputy corporation counsel.

“The opportunity came up for me to do this, and my heart is as an advocate for people with disabilities,” Knauff told the News. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities to assist people with disabilities, and I thought this would be a good way to be doing some of the work I’ve done previously. I see this role as not only working for the city but working for people with disabilities in the city.”

In a Friday press release, city spokesperson Gage Frank and Mayor Justin Elicker expressed enthusiasm about Knauff’s new position in City Hall.

“Today, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker welcomed the newest member of the Administration at New Haven City Hall,” Frank wrote. “Knauff received her Juris Doctorate from the University of Connecticut School of Law and has had an extensive career protecting and upholding the rights of persons living with disabilities.”

Knauff told the News that her decadeslong career in disability work began at the Connecticut Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities — a now-defunct state agency that worked to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities. In her role as a staffer, Knauff handled referral calls to disseminate information to people with disabilities and their families. Knauff went on to become assistant director of the agency and worked there for 29 years. 

After Knauff’s office was shut down by then-Gov. Dan Malloy in 2017, she went on to spearhead the nonprofit organization Disability Rights Connecticut. 

“Disability Rights CT took over the functions, and I was the executive director, so I set up the nonprofit, and we continued the services from the previous program,” she said. “We did a lot more investigative work into cases of abuse and neglect of people with disabilities.”

Now, Knauff is coming to New Haven.

Knauff told the News that she is still currently ironing out the priorities for her tenure. But there are some issues that Knauff said she is always focused on — such as voting accessibility. 

“I’m hoping to look at the services here and see if there are ways to improve the already very welcoming environment for people with disabilities for people in New Haven,” she told the News. “And I’m always worrying about voting for people with disabilities — making sure polling places are accessible. That’s something that I’m going to be talking with the registrar of voters about.”

Knauff also said she was in favor of supported decision-making — a tool that allow individuals with disabilities to retain their decision-making capacity after they reach adulthood by choosing trusted advisors. 

Though Knauff said she believes that New Haven is already a fairly welcoming place for people with disabilities, she said that it has not necessarily always been that way. Knauff attributed much of this progress to her predecessor, Michelle Duprey.

“[Duprey], from the conversations we’ve had, has had an impact in so many different areas in New Haven that it’s much more welcoming than it might’ve been,” Knauff noted. 

One challenge for New Haven is that it is infrastructurally old, Knauff said, and some older buildings are inaccessible. That is part of what she hopes to help address in New Haven — direct, physical change, especially for City Hall buildings.

But she also said that sometimes in conversations about disability issues, people focus too much on necessities, and not on the things people with disabilities may want to do for fun and pleasure.

“Looking at parks and recreation … everybody always focuses on making sure the essential things are accessible, more than looking at the fact that people with disabilities are well-rounded, interested human beings with families just like everybody else,” Knauff said. “Families want to go to the beach.”

In his statement announcing Knauff’s new position, Elicker acknowledged Knauff’s depth of experience in the field.

“I am excited to welcome Gretchen Knauff to the team here at City Hall,” Elicker wrote. “Gretchen has a strong history in the field of disability rights and advocacy — leading by example, fostering open communication and understanding the legal and ethical obligations of all to ensure equal treatment of every member of our community.” 

Duprey first took on the role of director of Disability Services in 1998.

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu