Years of helping are recognized by friends and peers
During a long career as a champion for the disability community, Michael Bjerkesett has worked to improve the lives of others. Friends, family and colleagues surprised Bjerkesett at the Brooklyn Park Northland Inn June 19, in an event with plenty of roasting and toasting. Watching the video made about his life and accomplishments was a highlight of the evening for Bjerkesett and those who know him
Back in the 1960’s Bjerkesett made a name for himself in Minnesota sports history. He played football, baseball, and hockey at Fridley High School. His feats were often covered in the local news. Bjerkesett was named All Conference and All State as a defensive tackle for the Fridley Tigers football team.
During college Bjerkesett found himself in the newspaper yet again: A momentary dozing at the wheel by the driver of a car he was in brought permanent paralysis to Mike from his shoulders to his toes. The car went off the road June 8 and rolled over, causing back injuries that required a spinal fusion. Mike had just finished his second year at Bemidji State College… The elder Bjerkesett reports his son’s morale is high, partly due to a host of friends that visit with him and send him plenty of mail. His arms are not paralyzed so he is confident of being able to operate a wheelchair when his spine is healed.
After Bjerkesett finished his rehabilitation at North Memorial Hospital, he attended Southwest Minnesota State College. “There were a lot of disabled [at Southwest] who had been in chairs a lot longer than myself. They helped me a lot,” said Bjerkesett.
Bjerkesett graduated with a degree in Business Administration and Psychology. In his first full-time job, Bjerkesett counseled others in the rehabilitation program at North Memorial Medical Center. “All the babes in the place were hanging around him…He was a studly dude,” said a former hospital co-worker.
In 1973 Bjerkesett left North Memorial to form the United Handicapped Federation (UHF), a social action organization which linked together 19 disability groups in Minnesota. He served as the UHF’s first executive director. “Our first priority was to educate the public. We wanted people to know that the issues of the disabled were immediate and urgent… The issues included accessible transportation, building accessibility, employment, healthcare, and aging,” said a former UHF staff member.
UHF became a highly regarded organization under Bjerke-sett’s leadership. “I can’t praise enough the work of the United Handicapped Federation; because of their effort, opportunities have opened up to all the disabled. How nice to drive up to the entryway of a shopping center and see a sign in the closest parking area, Reserved for Handicapped,” said Doris Nelson from Minnesota in her book Through a Looking Glass.
Bjerkesett began a new endeavor in 1975, the National Handicap Housing Institute. He wanted to develop accessible affordable housing for low-income adults with physical disabilities. “He was able to find government funding to start his business and become successful while giving people with disabilities an opportunity for independent living,” said a colleague and former tenant. The non-profit organization has developed more than 2,000 accessible apartments.
In 2006 Bjerkesett was nominated for the National Spinal Cord Injury Association Hall of Fame Award as a corporate executive. “While I feel Bjerkesett hasn’t achieved the acclaim he deserves, few people have had more influence in directly changing the lives of so many (in the disability community),” said his nominator. Bjerkesett’s sister wasn’t able to attend his June 19 surprise party, so she wrote him a note: I’m happy to know you are being acknowledged. All of this energy directed towards you is well deserved… You are a quiet and humble man as you go about the work you do- competently, thoroughly, and beautifully …leaving behind quality homes for the handicapped and elderly