Macalester Today: Empowering his peers

MACALESTER TODAY

John Tschida
Photo by John Noltner
John Tschida

John Tschida considers his work not a choice, but an imperative. As vice president of public affairs and research at Courage Center, the Twin Cities-based nonprofit rehabilitation and resource center, Tschida has the same aims as the organization: to empower people with physical disabilities to reach their full potential in every aspect of life. Since 1928, Courage Center has worked to advance the lives of people experiencing barriers to health and independence.

Tschida, a 1989 graduate of Macalester College, knows those barriers well. In 1993, while biking to work at his job at the State Capitol in St. Paul, he was thrown from his bike headfirst into a lamppost. He may have hit a pothole or a patch of gravel; Tschida still isn’t sure. But the spinal cord injury that resulted left him with quadriplegia, paralyzed from the chest down. During the years since his accident, Tschida has refashioned his life — a “damn good life,” he says. It’s a life propelled in no small measure by his own innate stubbornness and passion, and buoyed by the deep love of his family and by wisdom gained the hard way.

Inside his cluttered office at Courage Center’s Golden Valley headquarters, warm afternoon light filters through the windows. Stacks of papers line the desks and a sense of purpose pervades. Outside, geese and heron gather on the creek that runs through the wooded grounds. A few young birds waddle along shaded paths and footbridges.

The efforts to incorporate nature, beauty, and even serenity into the Courage Center environment are palpable. But the physical beauty is not meant to gloss over the challenges this organization seeks to address. Tschida himself is unromantic about the difficulties of life following an injury.

“Not much good comes from breaking your neck,” he says. Yet he readily admits that despite the magnitude of his injury, he was lucky, because the community response after his accident was phenomenal. “People were amazing — the visits, the letters, the fundraisers. My editing job at the Capitol was kept open for me until I could return, which I eventually did.”

A desire to do more
Yet after three post-accident years spent immersing himself in legislative reports that illuminated the many health-care challenges affecting the disability community, Tschida was stirred to make a change. He wanted to help solve those challenges instead of writing about them. “Working at the State Capitol made me realize I needed to do more,” he says. “After I acquired my own disability, I recognized that I was in a position to advocate for others who didn’t have the same connections and advantages I had.”

So it was that Tschida and his wife, Rachel Welch-Tschida (a Macalester 1990 grad), third-grade twin sons in tow, headed to Washington, D.C., where Tschida completed his master’s degree in public policy at Georgetown University. “Georgetown is a historic campus,” Tschida says with a sardonic smile. “That means I rode a lot of freight elevators.”

He also worked as a research fellow at the National Rehabilitation Hospital’s Center for Health and Disability Research. Meanwhile, the Tschidas were completing the adoption process for their daughter. It was a busy and productive time. Then in 1999, Tschida started getting calls about an open position at Courage Center, and the family decided to move back to Minnesota.

This sounds like an impressive stretch of accomplishments for anyone, disability or not. “Yeah,” Tschida says. “I was a pretty stubborn guy before I broke my neck, and that hasn’t changed. I used to joke about my stubbornness, saying there was no way in hell I was going to let this thing beat me.” He thinks for a moment, and then continues. “What will strike you as insane,” he says, “is that even though two-thirds of my body doesn’t work, I don’t see myself as disabled. And it’s not about denial. It’s only when I’m in a situation that’s inaccessible that I truly think of myself that way.”

Complex health-care issues
That attitude, more than anything else, illustrates why Tschida is such a fierce advocate for accessibility. But accessibility issues are complex, reaching beyond obvious examples such as wheelchair ramps. The biggest hurdles faced by the disability community, according to Tschida, are health-care issues. “We spend money on all the wrong things,” he says. “We fix problems after they happen, instead of investing in prevention. A doctor makes money amputating a leg but loses money teaching a diabetic how to care for his leg.”

The lack of insurance coverage for home health aides is a prime example of mismanagement, Tschida points out. Each morning an aide helps him prepare for the workday, a service Tschida pays for out of pocket. “No private insurance anywhere would pay for this,” he explains. “It’s not skilled nursing care — it’s simple custodial care. But I can’t get out of bed in the morning without it. On the other hand, government programs for the very poor will pay for anything, including the type of home health care that private insurance denies. As a result, a lot of disabled people are afraid to work and thus lose their state health benefits.”

This dynamic is part of the reason that the disability community in Minnesota faces a 54 percent unemployment rate. “And Minnesota is the best in the country,” Tschida adds. “But the fact is that people with disabilities are three times more likely to be poor than are members of the general population.” Even Courage Center must work against severe financial pressures to continue advancing its mission. “We lose money at everything we do here,” Tschida says. “Our residential program alone loses $1 million a year. In fact, a quarter of our budget depends on community philanthropy.”

Tschida’s work at Courage Center is deeply rooted in raising public awareness and aligning state law to support people in living as independently as possible. Certainly Tschida’s personal experience fuels his passion for this cause, but so too does his education.

“I was politicized at Macalester,” he says. “I gained this whole sense of being tied to a broader common good. My work today is a reflection of that.”

This article by Jeannine Oullette, a Minneapolis writer and teacher, was originally published in Macalester College’s Macalester Today magazine.

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