Civil rights changes took key steps 50 years ago, but others waited

On August 1, 1973, Minnesotans with disabilities were among those marking the expansion of the state’s anti-discrimination act. The act […]

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On August 1, 1973, Minnesotans with disabilities were among those marking the expansion of the state’s anti-discrimination act. The act was newly expanded to cover discrimination due to mental or physical disability, gender and marital status. Changes to the act were also meant to prevent discrimination against people receiving public assistance. The changes targeted issues including housing, education and public accommodations. 

The July 13, 1973 Star Tribune reported on a Minnesota Department of Human Rights hearing at which many people testified about discrimination. The hearing was meant to assist state officials as they developed guidelines for the act’s enforcement. 

About two dozen people testified. Not all of those who spoke were people with disabilities. Some people faced discrimination based on race or gender. Same-sex couples could not buy homes together. A woman’s income could not be fully counted toward a home purchase with her husband.  

Others faced discrimination if they were on public assistance. 

But there were many stories of people who had faced disability-based discrimination. “The majority of the testimony dealt with the handicapped,” the article stated. 

St. Paul resident Chuck Van Heuveln described the struggles people with disabilities faced in retaining employment. He outlined the challenges he faced as someone who uses a wheelchair. Even if someone could get a job, that person had to rely on family or friends for transportation. Public transportation wasn’t accessible. 

Van Heuveln also said that insurance companies charged people with disabilities higher rates. 

Other disability-based discrimination issues were also raised. Leah LeBar asked that Minneapolis Public Schools children with disabilities be allowed to attend their neighborhood schools, rather than being sent to only one school. LeBar was a wheelchair user and community resource specialist for Minneapolis Public Schools. 

A blind woman who could not find a teaching job was working in her home, for only $300 per month. 

The 1973 law strengthened the state’s  first major human rights law, which had been adopted in 1967. That statute made it unlawful to discriminate against people based on race, color, creed and national origin in unions, employment, education, public services and public accommodations. 

The history website MnOpedia provides an overview of changes. The 1967 Minnesota State Act Against Discrimination consolidated and strengthened existing anti-discrimination laws and created a new state Department of Human Rights. It was sponsored by Conservatives in the legislature (party designation was banned at the time) and supported by other prominent Conservatives, including Gov. Harold Levander, future US Senator David Durenberger, and future federal judge Robert Renner. The law passed easily. 

Discrimination based on gender was added in 1969. But others’ rights would have to wait,. It was not until 1993 that what are now called LGBTQ+ rights were protected. 
Attempts to protect what were called gay rights began 50 years ago, when DFL Senate Majority Leader Nicholas Coleman, on his own and without notice, proposed to amend the law to add people of “homosexual orientation” to those protected. His amendment narrowly passed the Senate but was removed in conference with the House. However, the categories marital status, status with respect to public assistance, and disability were added that year. The law’s name was changed to the Minnesota Human Rights Act. 

It would take years of work to be more inclusive. In 1991 a Governor’s Task Force recommended legal protection for gays and lesbians. The lobbying organization, It’s Time Minnesota, began organizing broad popular and institutional support for gay rights legislation, enlisting unions, teachers, and prominent civic groups. Changes were finally passed in 1993. 

The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org 

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