James Agee’s classic book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, reminds us that history is shaped by regular folks who step forward and do extraordinary things often without special status, advanced education, money or fancy clothes. Luther Granquist’s columns highlight that plenty of those people live in Minnesota.
Ken Tice, who died this fall, was one of them. Throughout the 1980s Ken was a stalwart at the legislature advancing the rights of people with disabilities as a lobbyist for Advocating Change Together (ACT). While the actual passage of legislation, advancing the rights of people working in sheltered workshops for example, was significant his major contributions are more profound than any statutory change he accomplished.
Ken carried the label of “mental retardation” or the R word as we now know it. Yet, his very being constantly changed the definition of intellectual handicap creating a dissonance in the stereotypes many carry. I once had a professional say to me that “if mentally retarded people could do what you think they can, they wouldn’t be mentally retarded.” Every time Ken testified or engaged a legislator, he shattered those professional definitions.
Ken would not accept scarcity of resources, energy or joy. In the late 1980s I was working on a piece of legislation that had passed the state House but languished in the Senate. Ken was working on a bill on behalf of ACT that shared a similar status. In the waning days of that session, I desperately searched for a conference committee that had a shred of germaneness. With three days remaining, I found it. Inserting my bill into the conference committee bill was the only chance for survival. It only had a sliver of a chance but the conference committee represented “the last train leaving the station.”
As I headed out to find a friendly legislator on the conference committee, I was pierced by a dilemma. This conference committee was the only chance for Ken’s bill as well. BUT the more of us who tried this precarious route the less chance for success any of our bills would have. As I pondered, Ken rushed up to me in front of the House Chamber.
“Mel, Mel, I just found a conference committee where they might include my bill and they might include yours as well, let’s go!”
Ken saw no dilemma. Unlike me he was not encumbered by such political equations of scarcity.
Ken has much to teach those bravely venturing to the capitol next month. First, nothing replaces real people advocating for themselves. People with disabilities will have to clog the halls. Legislators must face those who they propose to bludgeon.
Secondly, the more that people who carry labels speak for themselves the more quickly stereotypes and limitations shatter. It is a powerful witness when one proclaims proudly, “I am who I am!”
And, Ken’s refusal to accept scarcity will serve well those lobbying for basic human needs. We must guard against being pitted against one another. Like Gandhi, Ken would tell those setting the state budget, “There is enough for human need just not enough for human greed.”
-Mel Duncan was a longtime friend of Ken Tice.