Reader Profile: Kathleen Hagen

Kathy Hagen is an attorney working on civil rights cases at the Disability Law Center in Minneapolis. Kathy is 50 […]

Kathy Hagen is an attorney working on civil rights cases at the Disability Law Center in Minneapolis. Kathy is 50 years old and lives in a house in South Minneapolis with her partner of 20 years. She has been totally blind for most of her life.

Access Press: At what age did your disability really start to affect your life?

Kathy Hagen: I think I’ve really been affected by my disability in one way or another throughout my entire life.

AP: Can you think of one moment or time period when your disability and all it’s implications suddenly hit you?

KH: I grew up as a blind person back at a time when they still sent blind people to schools for the blind, in an institutional setting. I went to grade school and high school in that setting. So I would say entering school at the age of five was when my disability first began really affecting my life. I realized then that I wasn’t going to live at home anymore, and things were very different for me because I was blind and I wasn’t raised at home. At home I was special and they paid a lot of attention to me, but when I went off to school suddenly I was just one of many.

AP: Was the school generally a bad experience in life?

KH: Well it was and it wasn’t. It was at the South Dakota School for the Blind. I got really good academic training that has stood me very well throughout life. I learned Braille right away from a blind teacher who read Braille herself. People today who are blind are put in a regular public school and they really don’t have that opportunity at all. They learn Braille from a person who has just learned enough Braille to teach them and who doesn’t necessarily think Braille is a very useful way to read – which, of course, it is if you’re proficient. So I was very proficient at skills in school, and we had good teachers in the academic sense.

I think the bad part of it is being raised away from your family so that you don’t really belong to your family; your family goes on without you.

AP: Did being in the school make you feel really segregated, not just from your family but from the rest of society?

KH: Yes, we felt very different from the rest of the world. I certainly thought when I graduated from high school that I didn’t want to have any connection with people who are disabled because I just wanted to be like everybody else.

I think part of it is that when you’re a teenager you don’t want to be different – and we were considered very different. Whenever we were sent out into the town people treated us like we were the odd ones.

At the school we had a choir and they would send us on chorus trips. The Lion’s Club in various towns would have us come and sing to the towns people and then they’d give money to the school – they’d send the collections plate around, and we’re in high school! It was so humiliating, things like that were just awful. People would come in to do things for us to take us places, you know, to do some goodie-goodie thing for the poor blind kids. I became pretty cynical because of the way people were. I turned into a brat actually.

AP: Tell me about one of the bratty things you did.

KH: When I was in high school they let me take a college prep English class in the public school. In that class we were selling zip code directories to raise money to go to Minneapolis to the Guthrie Theater for the weekend. Pretty quick I realized that, because I was blind, I had an edge on selling these things. So, when visitors came to the school for the blind, we were supposed to have our rooms cleaned up so these people could come in and look. I cleaned up my room so nothing was out except the zip code directories, which I sat right in the middle of my room.

When these visitors would come in my room they’d look around and say, “Oh how wonderful it is that a blind person can clean up her room! How wonderful she is!” but then they’d say, “Wait, what’s that?” And I’d say, “What’s what?” (I’d play stupid). And they’d say, “Well, what are these books over here?” And I’d say, “Oh we’re selling zip code directories so we can go to Minneapolis.” Of course, I knew full well that they thought that I meant the school for blind kids was selling them. So they’d all buy them; I mean, I sold hundreds of them. These people all thought they were sending the school for blind kids to Minneapolis and they weren’t; they were sending the public school kids.

I was totally satisfied with misleading them because I just hated those people that went through the school on visits. They just made me sick going around saying, “Oh it’s wonderful that blind kids can do anything. It’s so wonderful they can get out of bed.”

AP: When did you start being a disability rights activist?

KH: When I graduated from high school, I really wanted nothing to do with blind people or disabled people in general. So for several years I generally tried not to relate to people with disabilities. I basically passed. Well, I can’t say I passed because it’s very apparent that I’m blind and it’s not anything I can hide, but I tried very hard to pass as a “normal” person.

AP: How did you get from not wanting to be associated with people with disabilities to being so involved in the movement?

KH: At one point I went to the University of Kansas to study music therapy. At that time there was this whole issue going on there, where they were going to put up a monument to a man with multiple disabilities who basically had been a beggar selling pencils in the middle of the street in Lawrence, Kansas throughout his life. This man was like the little town mascot and he had recently died. They wanted to put up this monument to him because he had apparently said throughout his life, “Remember me, I’m the little man who sold pencils on the street corner.” That was going to be the inscription on the monument.

When I came to Lawrence I read in the student paper about this monument they were going to put up. I thought, “Clearly they just haven’t thought about this. This is something we can take care of right now.” I wrote to the student paper and said why they shouldn’t do this. Then I went out and found all these people with disabilities on campus and we tried to organize, and essentially what happened was that people got really angry with us. I mean it actually hit the Associated Press and we got letters from all over the place, even the military base in Guam.

People from all over wrote us saying, “What’s the matter with you people? They just want to honor this poor little man who was a beggar and now you want to keep them from doing that. What’s the matter with you people?” I even got threats; I got a call that said, “If you want to make trouble, don’t stay in Lawrence.” I was just shocked. I had no idea that sticking up for your rights and dealing with disabilities could get you in that kind of a situation.

Eventually they did put up this little monument. It’s very small and most people will probably never see it. It’s much smaller than I think it would’ve been had we not made such a noise about it. They did put it up, though; the townspeople just didn’t care what we thought. They were very hostile; they were not pleased with us at all.

I guess it was that single experience that led me toward actually looking for ways to become more active in the community. It was clear to me then that, Number One: I couldn’t hide that I had a disability and, Number Two: there were people out there who were going to be very upset with me if I wasn’t grateful for crumbs. So I figured that I’d better try to connect with other people who felt like I did about disability rights.

AP: What do you do for fun?

KH: I’m in a women’s chorus called Calliope. It’s named after a Greek goddess of music. I sing second alto. I’m also very much into reading, particularly murder mysteries. I love to go to concerts, theater, go out to dinner, walk around the lakes. My partner and I do yoga on Saturday mornings, and we have a class that we go to.

AP: Do you feel that you’ve been able to do what you wanted to in life, or do you think your disability has held you back?

KH: Mostly I’d say I’ve been able to do what I want to do, perhaps doing things differently, but doing them. The problems that I’ve encountered have not been caused necessarily by my blindness at all but by people’s reaction to what they think I can or can’t do.

AP: Who is the most admirable person or persons you’ve ever met?

KH: I would have to say it’s some of the people with disabilities I’ve met here in Minneapolis . One person who stands out as always fighting and pushing forward for the rights of people with disabilities is Margot Imdieke. I’ve known Margot now for maybe 20 years and she would be a person that I highly esteem.

AP: What are your future plans or goals?

KH: Whether it’s as an attorney or in some other way, what I’m mainly interested in is making people with disabilities as independent as possible. If I moved away from doing litigation, it would be toward a project that was set up specifically to make people independent in some way. For example, a project that was set up to help people learn how to manage their money so that then they could go on and live independently – that’s the kind of thing I could imagine doing if I wasn’t doing law. I know whatever I do, it will be geared towards helping people who want to be independent.

AP: Can you leave us with any closing statements words of wisdom?

KH: Go after what you want and find support people who will help you get there. Don’t assume you can’t do something just because you have a disability.

This is the second in a series of profiles designed to share personal accounts of how other people with disabilities are doing in the community. It is our hope that by sharing our personal stories we may be a source of strength to one another. Let us know what you think or if you know someone you would like us to interview!

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