Van Heuveln exemplifies spirit of community activism, self-advocacy

“You’ve got to fight for what you want,” was a key message from the 2012 Access Press Charlie Smith Award winner. Charles “Chuck” Van Heuveln and his supporters recounted his years of community and self-advocacy during his speech Nov. 2 at the annual banquet, which was held at the Minneapolis Airport Marriott in Bloomington.

The event celebrates Minnesota’s disability community and its accomplishments. The evening included a preview of an upcoming film about Minnesota’s disability movement and the role of the news media, which drew cheers. The film will be released in spring 2013.

Former Access Press Board member Anita Schermer was honored for her years of service to the newspaper.

Van Heuveln is the tenth person honored with the award, which has been given since 2003. Many past award winners were on hand for this year’s event. Previous award winners Anne Henry joined veteran activist Mel Duncan in introducing Van Heuveln. Both Henry and Duncan are among those who have worked with Van Heuveln on legislative issues.

Duncan described Van Heuveln as “one of those historic figures that few ever hear anything about” and noted he was present at the dawn of Minnesota’s disability rights movement. The two met in 1972 at United Cerebral Palsy and began working on election issues. Van Heuveln worked for years to force removal of architectural barriers, promote accessible transportation and reduce physical and paperwork barriers to voting. He was involved in efforts to change a past practice that had required that all absentee ballots be notarized before submission, a rule that made it difficult for many people to vote.

He was a leader of what became Triple I or Independence for Impaired Individuals, a group Access Press founding editor Charlie Smith was its first executive director.

Van Heuveln was closely involved in adding the word “disability” to state human rights law; removing demeaning language from most Minnesota legislation. He also led efforts to allow a rubber signature stamp to be a person’s legal signature. Yet another focus for him was to make sure that all public transportation would be accessible to people with disabilities.

Van Heuveln’s most recent battle, waged during the 2012 session of the Minnesota Legislature, was to force charges to Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities (MA-EPD). The program allows people with  disabilities to pay a percentage of their earnings, as an insurance premium toward medical expenses to county human services. Van Heuveln needs services to cover his personal care attendant needs, which are not covered under his employment insurance.

But under past state rules, he would be cut off at age 65 and placed on MA, even though he wanted to continue working. Under MA, he would have to give up his job working with students with disabilities at St. Paul Public Schools and most of his accumulated financial assets, and ultimately his home, due to income restrictions that would have made it impossible to continue to pay his mortgage.

He worked to change state law to allow MA-EPD recipients to keep working, taking his case to the news media and raising awareness of this important issue. Duncan recalled that Van Heuveln initially got little response from state lawmakers. But with help from the news media including Access Press, Van Heuveln put a human side to the plight of working Minnesotans with disabilities who want to work and want to continue to contribute to society. He got the law changed; helping many Minnesotans with disabilities continue to work.

Duncan read from an email from Van Heuveln, when the fight began: “I have written letters to the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor followed the MA-EPD Bill through the House and the Senate in the last Legislative season. Today I started checking into Legal Aide. Mel I need a little help because I’m not quite ready for a nursing home or be put out to pasture.” Duncan quipped, “Chuck has a compelling, matter-of-fact way of engaging people that is hard to refuse.” When most legislators proved to be less than helpful, Van Heuveln then wrote them and challenged each to live on $677 per month, MA income limit.

“His refusal to be put out to pasture, a year and a half ago led to hundreds of people being able to continue working, keep their homes, keep their pensions, keep their lives,” said Duncan.

Van Heuveln, for his part, recalled the years of work he and other activists put in on so many issues important to Minnesota’s disability community. He urged those present to get involved and take a role in doing the important work of advocating for the community. He was also gracious in emphasizing that such work isn’t something he has done alone. “I could not do what I have done without the help of others,” Van Heuveln said.

Duncan said it was fitting that Van Heuveln was honored just days before Minnesotans voted whether or not to amend the state constitution to restrict voting, a provision that would stifle people with disabilities from voting.

“We live in tough times,” said Duncan. “Are we witnessing the twilight of the disability rights movement? Or will we follow Chuck’s example and refuse to be shut in and shut out and act to bring a new dawn?”

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