Countless people with disabilities have enjoyed accessible housing, thanks to Michael Bjerkesett. Bjerkesett’s death January 18 sent shock waves through his large circle of friends and triggered an outpouring of sadness from around the world. Family and friends recall his twinkling eyes, ready smile and zest for life. A celebration of his life was held January 29 in St. Anthony. He was 69 years old and lived in New Brighton.
Bjerkesett was best known in Minnesota’s disability community as one of the founders of the United Handicap Federation and as the founder and longtime executive director of the National Handicap Housing Institute, Inc. Bjerkesett founded NHHI in 1975 for the express purpose of improving the independent lifestyles of persons with physical disabilities. His own life as a quadriplegic and experiences trying to find a home for himself raised awareness of the challenges people face in finding accessible homes.
Dick VanWagner met Bjerkesett in 1974, when he was helping organize United Handicap Federation. He soon realized that Bjerkesett was a leader, rather than an organizer. “Thanks to Mike – and others – the United Handicapped Federation became a reality. With relish I brought the gavel down on that first convention, became an officer, and since I had a knack for knowing when and how to confront or coddle elected and appointed public officials, took the lead on a number of projects. Mike and I worked together on goals, strategies and tactics – including knowing the responses UHF would receive from some officials and what our second and third steps would be. After a while I could see Mike was champing at the bit, wanting to get out front, to use his energy and i10ntelligence to get things done with his skill, his vision. You can’t keep a thoroughbred in the starting stall when the other horses were well beyond the gates.”
Van Wagner and Bjerkesett worked together on many issues. When they were researching a civil lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Commission, Bjerkesett turned to his friend and said, “Dick, I’m a leader not an organizer.” He and architect John Myklebust went on to form what became NHHI.
“We both signed on as plaintiffs in the suit against the MTC and kept working together for a few years until going our separate ways, active on different paths working on issues with people with disabilities. Mike has left big footprints, tread marks if you will, on his way home,” said VanWagner.
NHHI, which is considered one of the nation’s leading accessible housing developers, has created more than 15,000 specialized housing units over the years. The developer has had a hand in developing barrier-free housing across the nation, including 20 Minnesota buildings. NHHI has conducted research on barrier-free housing design and developed architectural and product specification standards that are functional and affordable, for new and existing buildings. Its staff has also provided design-related services, marketing, consultation and property management activities to other developers.
Bjerkesett retired from NHHI in fall 2014. In an interview he said that as he got older, it was taking more time to manage his health and care. He took time off and then founded another nonprofit, Accessible Architecture, Inc. It is an online resource, providing state-of-the-art, barrier-free designs at no cost.
His dedication to barrier-free housing for elders and people with mobility disabilities and equal access drew praise from Bjerkesett’s colleges. Friends described him as a quiet, humble and hard-working, and as someone who could work collaboratively and bring people together. He helped many friends, behind the scenes, with their personal and financial struggles. He was a loyal friend to many.
But “the Bjerk” also had a great sense of humor, was an avid sports fan and loved getting together with old friends. After his death many people spoke of his kind and friendly demeanor, dating back to his days as a popular student-athlete at Fridley High School. He seldom missed a chance to get together with Fridley friends and swap stories of growing up together.
Born into an Irish-Norwegian family, Bjerkesett spent his early childhood in Worthington. His family moved to Fridley when he was in grade school. He played baseball and hockey, and was all-Skyline Conference and all-state on the Fridley Tigers football team. Fridley Community Schools honored him in 2013 with an award as an outstanding alumnus.
Just after completing his associate of arts degree from Bemidji State University in 1967, Bjerkesett was riding home with friends when the vehicle was in an accident and rolled. He went to North Memorial Medical Center for rehabilitation and then attended what was then Southwest Minnesota State College in Marshall. He graduated in 1971.
At the time Southwest State was one of the few accessible campuses in Minnesota. Bjerkesett told Access Press in a 2008 interview that “There were a lot of disabled [at Southwest] who had been in chairs a lot longer than me. They helped me a lot.”
After graduating with a degree in business administration and psychology, Bjerkesett went back to North Memorial as a rehabilitation program counselor. In 1973 Bjerkesett left North Memorial to form the United Handicapped Federation and serve as its first executive director. The federation was a consortium of 19 disability advocacy groups, educating the public on a number of issues.
He began NHHI in 1975, to develop accessible affordable housing for low-income adults with physical disabilities. Partners in development remember his focus on collaboration and making each projects better than the next. His work required an in-depth understanding of various federal and state housing programs in order to develop housing alternatives, supervise management of properties, develop and disseminate design expertise, control allocation of funds, develop marketing/management plans, direct research, institute new programs and raise funds for continued operation of NHHI’s corporate objectives.
“It’s important to me that what we came up with at NHHI was never ‘our’ idea,” said Bjerkesett in a 2014 interview. “We never have seen ourselves as the beall and end-all for housing for people with mobility limitations. We saw ourselves as adding an element to the range of options in the community.”
In that interview, Bjerkesett said he was gratified to see so many of NHHI’s innovations become standard features in housing. “Since the 1980s we’ve seen major improvements in building accessibility,” he said. “It’s really nice to see, over time, building standards become more and more accessible.”
He won many awards over the years, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from Southwest State University, the Courage Award from the Courage Center and the WCCO Radio Good Neighbor Award.
Parents Ole and Barbara Bjerkesett, and brother-in-law Leon Getting preceded him in death. Bjerkesett is survived by sisters Marlene (George) Jezierski and Karen Getting; and several nieces and nephews.
Bjerkesett made a bequest to the SMSU Foundation to create a scholarship for students planning to work for nonprofit groups. Memorials in his honor can be sent to SMSU Foundation in Marshall or the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute Foundation in Minneapolis.