Groundbreaking 1972 conference brought demands for change 

The notion of strength in number has always been popular. Fifty years ago this month, a large coalition of groups […]

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The notion of strength in number has always been popular. Fifty years ago this month, a large coalition of groups representing people with disabilities presented state leaders with a list of demands. The demands were outlined at the Governor’s Conference on Handicapped Persons. 

Although some of the language used in  media coverage might make us cringe today, we also must recognize that the 1972 event represented a major step for self-advocates. The federal Rehabilitation Act was still a year away from passage, with the protection and advocacy system in the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act not seeing passage until 1975. The Education For All Handicapped Children Act was also passed in 1975, with the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act following in 1980. 

Although disabled Minnesotans had some rights our counterparts in other states lacked in 1972, our world was hardly a level playing field. We were years away from deinstitutionalization and stepped-up efforts for community integration. We lacked many basic accommodations. We didn’t even have curb cuts. 

It’s striking to realize that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was 18 years away from that 1972 gathering. 

“It is the first time that private and government organizations for the handicapped have banded together, organizers said.” The Minneapolis Star reported that more than 2,000 people attended the day-long conference at the Radisson South in Bloomington, with about 1,500 organization and government staff members on hand. 

At the conference, several people shared their stories of what people with disabilities faced. Ruth Erickson described how she wasn’t hired as a teacher in rural North Dakota because of her arthritis. Erickson also recalled her days working as a clerk at a college. College trustees didn’t want “normal students” to see her. 

Obtaining insurance of all types, including health insurance, was an obstacle. Erickson told the group that although she’d been driving for 20 years and never had an accident, her auto insurance provider required that a doctor or nurse ride with her on a test trip and make a report to the company. Otherwise, her policy would not be renewed, despite her passing the test on her first try. 

Leroy Marshall bought a house in south Minneapolis in 1962, but his cerebral palsy prevented him from obtaining mortgage insurance. “If I had died, the house would have gone back to the bank instead of to my family,” he said. 

Gov. Wendell Anderson was leading state government at that time. He heard the presentation, which included calls for: 

*An equal rights provision in the state constitution, barring discrimination against people with physical and cognitive disabilities, in housing, education, employment, public facilities and accommodations. 

*Having people with disabilities among groups served by the state’s Human Rights Commission.  

*Having people with disabilities treated fairly under state guardianship laws and the state Hospitalization and Commitment Act. 

*All polling places must be accessible to people with disabilities. 

*Good prenatal care should be provided to low-income families to prevent conditions leading to infants being disabled at birth. 

Special medical treatment for disabled children from low-income families. The coalition called for medical are to be provide at reduced cost. 

*State agencies dealing with the handicapped should have representation by the handicapped. 

*The excess costs of education students with disabilities in local school districts should be assumed by the state. 

*Community based living quarters should be provided as an alternative to state institutionalization, with the state paying 90 percent of the costs of caring for developmentally disabled and emotional disturbed children in private facilities 

*The bureaucracy of the present human services system should be regionalized and a uniform system of administering medical and other assistance grants should be developed 

The session ended with Anderson and other state leaders making a series of recommendations. Anderson agreed with the call for antidiscrimination measures and expanded special education and health support systems. he also called for health insurance providers to provide insurance at reasonable rates for clients who are disabled. 

Erickson said that for years she had come to expect outright discrimination. “The handicapped for too long just sat back, expecting others to do things for them,” Erikson told the St. Cloud Daily Times. “But now we’re fighting.” 

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 

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