Fought for rights: Life experiences helped her to become a community champion

Gloria Steinbring drew on her own life experiences to become a tenacious champion for the rights of people with disabilities. She and her late husband […]

Gloria SteinbringGloria Steinbring drew on her own life experiences to become a tenacious champion for the rights of people with disabilities. She and her late husband Dean are also remembered for their successful fight to be wed. Steinbring died January 11 at age 71. Services were January 23 at Simpson United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, with inurnment beside Dean at Morningside Memorial Gardens in Coon Rapids. He died in 1983.

A public memorial service is planned at a later date.

Steinbring was a founder of Advocating Change Together (ACT) in 1979 and chaired its board. She was a pioneering self-advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. She combined a fierce populist spirit with a kind heart and strong loyalty to others.

Tributes poured in after her death. “Gloria was a natural leader and spokesperson who sparked the self-advocacy movement,” said Mel Duncan, founding director of Nonviolent Peace force. “Her active advocacy for over 35 years did more than bring reform. The very act of doing the work and proudly asserting who she was changed the public perception of people with intellectual disabilities. We all benefit every time someone stands up and says, ‘I am who I am.’ We owe Gloria a lot. I love her.”

At ACT Steinbring was one of the early leaders in the Remembering With Dignity movement, working to replace thousands of numbered grave markers with the names of those who died in Minnesota state institutions. She also worked on many other legislative and disability rights issues, sometimes using stories from her own life to inform lawmakers. When speaking for change, she described how she was locked in a closet. Steinbring’s childhood friend Sen. Ron Dicklich (DFL-Hibbing) and Rep. Karen Clark (DFL– Minneapolis) authored the legislation. Anne Henry of the Minnesota Disability Law Center got to know Steinbring as a client when she wanted to be married, then as an activist and dear friend. “I always treasured those snuggling hugs she generously gave,” Henry said.

Born Gloria Jean Gunderson, she grew up on Minnesota’s Iron Range and moved to Minneapolis as a young woman. In an interview, Steinbring said: “When I moved from Hibbing to Minneapolis in 1968, I thought I was on my way to a new career. My social worker in Hibbing told me that I should get job training, and Minneapolis had schools for this. I was living with my parents in Hibbing at the time, and helped them with raising my younger brother, Duane. I liked working with children, and dreamed of one day working in a day care. I followed my social worker’s advice, and moved to Minneapolis.”

Steinbring wound up living in a facility with more than 100 people. She described the places as a “mini-institution.”

“I was nervous at first. I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “It was really tough living away from home for the first time … I didn’t really like living there. Instead of getting real job training, I went to a sheltered workshop. They ‘evaluated’ me and said that I couldn’t get a competitive job because the dexterity in my fingers was not quick enough. They told me ‘you’ll have to stay in the workshop for the rest of your life.’”

Her dreams of work in child care were slipping away. “My job was to put hooks in straps, hour after hour, all day long. I also sealed thermostat covers in a plastic package. We would work on a line, where one person would put in one part, another person would do something else, and the part would move down the line. I didn’t like this work because this wasn’t where my expertise was. This work made me feel like I was good for nothing.”

Steinbring and her future husband lived in the same facility, worked at the same sheltered workshop and shared a dislike of their menial jobs. “When we started getting involved with each other, the people at the workshop separated us. We had to work in different rooms. We got married in 1974 and moved into our own apartment,” she said. The Steinbrings become one of the first couples with intellectual disabilities to get married in Minnesota.

The couple learned about self-advocacy after hearing a Minneapolis ARC voter registration presentation. Hearing self-advocates speak was a stark contrast to workshop staff who would tell people “You’ll be here for the rest of your lives.” Steinbring recalled, “They kept pounding this into us. But when I started going to self-advocacy meetings, I learned that I had rights, and that I could stand up for myself. I was tired of being treated like a kid by the workshop.”

After 11 years at the workshop, Steinbring took time off and received an independent evaluation. She learned that she was capable of working at competitive jobs, and that child care work could have been an option. After going back to the workshop, she would only work for minimum wage, then $2.35 per hour. After being told she would receive 88 cents an hour, “I told them to go to hell, and quit the workshop.”

“In 11 years, they didn’t teach me anything,” she said. “Since that time, I think supported employment has made things better, but there are still people being trained for jobs they don’t want. Who is this helping? We need to work on changing attitudes and telling people about our abilities. We need to make our own decisions.”

Find Steinbring’s interviews can be found here.