October was a month of celebrations and banquets in our community. The Minnesota State Council on Disabilities had an outstanding luncheon on Oct. 14 at the River Centre in downtown St. Paul. They honored many community members, including the artist who did the We Can Work posters for the State program Pathways to Employment through VSA Minnesota. The keynote speaker, Lynnae Ruttledge, Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration in the U.S. Department of Education did a fabulous job explaining the employment status of people with disabilities. The fun banter between David Schwarzkopf, a board member of the State Council, and Tom Houser from KSTP News, as they sparred over Vikings versus Packers football, kept the crowd laughing.
Metropolitan Council for Independent Living (MCIL) had its annual banquet on Oct. 27 at the Roseville Radisson. Keynote speaker, Sue Swen-son (Minnesota-born and now working in Washington, D.C.), is deputy assistant director for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and was a commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities under President Bill Clinton. Swenson captivated the audience with a personal story of her son and how he took the UN off-guard with his nonverbal self-advocacy during a conference on International Human Rights. Although he didn’t speak, everyone knew what rights he expected from them.
Advocating Change Together (ACT) hosted a banquet at Black Bear Crossing Oct. 29, celebrating the apology legislation that passed in the 2010 legislative session. If you’re not aware of the apology resolution, it is legislation that Rick Cárdenas, co-director of ACT, struggled to get passed for many years. Resolution 4, H.F. No. 1680, issued an apology from the State of Minnesota to all the individuals who were imprisoned, brutalized, and forced to work in Minnesota institutions. Both authors of the legislation, Sen. John Marty and Rep. Karen Clark, read the apology to the several dozen individuals attending who had been institutionalized in state hospitals.
Many of the individuals spoke about years of living under demoralizing conditions. One gentleman told of being physically and sexually abused by staff and then asked if he enjoyed it. A woman talked about not having shoes and only a sheet to keep her warm in bed in the winter. Another woman spoke about how the state insisted she put her child into an institution, and how after 10 years she took him home and never returned him to state custody. On the night of the banquet, she told the audience that she is 85 years old and taking care of her 60-year-old son. I hope that our state will take responsibility and guarantee that this incredibly strong senior citizen does not ever have to worry about her adult son going back into an institution when she can no longer take care of him.
Others talked about being isolated, restrained and how frequently the staff explained, “It is for your own good.” Those who had been institutionalized told us about how successful they are now, living in their own condominiums, working independently in the community. One man, a nine-year employee of Pizza Hut, told us about his dream of working as an automobile mechanic and driving his own vehicle. He learned a lot, he said, from all the terrible things that had happened to him—first of all, that he can’t give up hope. He will not give up his dreams. (So if anyone knows anyone that needs help in an automobile repair shop, we know a young man who has been dreaming about working in an auto shop for years.)
Many of these stories were very hard to listen to, and made one wonder how legislators could have gone on for years and years hearing these stories without recognizing that the state had made some terrible mistakes and needed to publicly apologize. It seemed that most of these folks wanted the apology, but even more they wanted their stories to be heard. One gentleman yelled in my direction, “Are you going to put this in the paper?” We will be working on chronicling these stories and publishing them in the near future. There are many fabulous success stories that develop from sad and dreadful beginnings.
By the time you read this, Access Press will have hosted our 20-year anniversary and annual Charlie Smith awards banquet. Steve Kuntz was honored as the winner of the 2010 Charlie Smith award for his outstanding work in finding employment for people with disabilities. Kuntz was a very good friend of Charlie’s, and was on the board of directors when I first started at Access Press. He’s very deserving and we want to thank him again and encourage him to keep up the good work?