Remembering local disability-rights pioneer Chuck Frahm
David Korten, in his book The Great Turning, urges us to change the stories we live by.
Chuck Frahm, who died in November, provides one of these stories that we need to proclaim and honor.
I met Chuck Frahm in 1972 at the St. Paul United Cerebral Palsy Center at the dawning of the disability rights movement in Minnesota. He was a couple of years older than I. He was a skinny guy with penetrating, brown eyes and Huck Finn hair. He walked with braced crutches and covered about ten feet a minute, often falling and banging his head and shoulders. He refused to ride in a wheelchair. He talked by shakily pointing to letters on a tattered green board. He talked even slower than he walked, and he drooled often.
He and some friends had graduated from high school and then spent the next three years sitting alone at their homes. Now in their early twenties, they were almost totally dependent on aging parents for transportation and most everything else. They had started coming to the cerebral palsy center for an accounting class. We spent a lot of time talking together. The group shared their dreams and aspirations. They wanted independence, jobs, transportation, entertainment, housing, friends, sex and fun. They told of other people with disabilities whom they had met, usually at charitable functions or when they were in school.
After a lot of listening and a little trust, they started talking about their anger and frustration. The group invited other people with disabilities to meetings just to talk. Soon all were sharing their stories, dreams and frustrations. Often there would be knowing nods and comments like “You too!” An amazing thing happened. Chuck and the others learned that they were not alone in their struggles. Individuals quit blaming themselves. They quit accepting. They started organizing.
The group decided to register people with disabilities to vote in the 1972 election. At that time few polling places were accessible. Absentee registration and voting required notarization, so two of the group members became notary publics. They advertised their service in the newspaper. Small teams including one of the notaries went to nursing homes and other large residential facilities that housed people with disabilities. They registered people to vote and then returned with absentee ballots. The group scheduled candidate nights and questioned politicians about architectural barriers, accessible transportation and jobs.
After the election, the group began talking about problems that they had encountered during their voter registration and education campaign. Chuck and the others now clearly saw issues as more than personal. They identified barriers in their lives. They discussed how these barriers not only impacted them but also the hundreds of people they had registered to vote.
They started to list what they wanted changed. They wanted voter registration and absentee balloting by mail with no notary requirements. They wanted personalized rubber stamps to serve as official signatures for those unable to write. As people talked they became emboldened. They wanted accessible transportation and full human rights.
Chuck and his friends invited newly elected legislators to the UCP Center, not for a charity tour but to present their demands. They began developing legislation, doing research and finding legislative authors. They met with the newspaper. They continued to connect with more people with disabilities.
The idleness of the group members turned into a resource. Chuck had plenty of time to be at the legislature. The group organized, lobbied and testified. Within two years, postcard registration and mail-in ballots had become law. People could use rubber stamps as their legal signatures. And the state human rights code had been amended to include disability. Metro Mobility came a couple of years later.
Chuck had been active in this entire campaign. He and his colleagues became regulars at the Capitol. The slick marble floors were like a skating rink for his crutches. He’d fall and get up, angry if someone suggested that he use a wheelchair. He delighted in busy legislators having to take time to read his language board as he slowly and unsteadily pointed to letter after letter.
A couple of years later Chuck’s parents decided to retire and move to northern MN. He didn’t want to go with them and return to isolation. His only choice was to enter one of the large nursing homes where he and his friends had registered voters.
The group listened as he presented his plight. He wanted to be independent and live in his own place. They vowed to organize a house that would be his home, where he could be as independent as possible. Charlie, Renee and Bill Smith, who would later found Access Press, became active in developing the project.
Many people with disabilities of that day were housed in large nursing homes. Welfare and health agencies were not interested in a house that would be controlled by the residents. Chuck and his colleagues went to meetings and researched. The group figured out a creative way to fund their housing proposal. They met with foundation bureaucrats. The group expanded their ranks of both people with disabilities as well as the temporarily able-bodied.
Chuck organized a meeting with the county official who controlled the residential program budget. The group presented their plan of a real house, in a real neighborhood where the residents would be in charge. It would cost much less than a nursing home alternative. In a monotone voice, the official recited in sterile detail how such a proposal was simply unfeasible.
Chuck stared at the bureaucrat with his penetrating brown eyes. When the official finished his rejecting comments, Chuck mustered his coordination into a fist. He raised his arm with a directness I’d never seen in him. He crashed his fist on his word board. “God damn, you!” He shouted in a voice that we had never before heard.
Chuck found his voice. After a year’s work, the group opened a house. Chuck moved in with three other guys.
While I would like to say that they all lived there happily ever after, social change doesn’t happen with such tidiness. After a couple of years, administrative problems sunk the place. Yet the self-determination model has lived on.
We cannot let this story die with Chuck.