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State Council on Disability notes progress — and 35th anniversary

The Minnesota State Council on Disability celebrates its 35th anniversary Thursday with an awards luncheon in downtown St. Paul.

Its founding in 1973 came on the heels of the civil rights triumphs of the 1960s, as new ideas emerged around the country to improve the lives of those living with disabilities: independent living, curb cuts, handicapped parking, barrier removal and more. Job training was stressed, and special education became a buzzword.

“Our message was starting to be heard. We wanted to have homes, jobs, families and full participation in society. We didn’t want to live in institutions or be hidden away at home,” said Joan Willshire, the council’s current executive director.

New disabilities council meant as clearinghouse
A 1972 Governor’s Conference on the Handicapped called for formation of a new agency that would advocate for people with disabilities and serve as a clearinghouse for information. Legislators agreed, and Gov. Wendell Anderson named the first council of 30 members the next year.

(I  recently helped prepare a history brochure for the council’s anniversary, so I’ve learned a lot about those early days. Some of that historical information is included here.)

The first chairperson, in 1973, was John Myers, then-CEO of Hoerner-Waldorf Corp., the paper and cardboard box company. Cliff Miller, a veteran DFL labor leader, was the first executive director. His tiny staff worked in a small office on the fourth floor of the Metro Square building in downtown St. Paul. (Thirty-five years later, the council remains in Metro Square, but on the first floor.)

Within six months, Miller hired an assistant, Dick Ramberg, who five years later would become the second director. 

Jane Belau was one of the original council members. She’d been part of the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, a ground-breaking group that provided leadership for the governor’s conferences and the newly founded council. Then, as now, the governor appointed council members from three categories: consumers (a person with a disability, or a parent or guardian of such a person), service providers and members of the public like Belau.

She believes the council helped focus the planning and action arising from the many groups and programs for people with disabilities that had begun to proliferate.

“It was a remarkable time in history,” she said. “There were funds available, and there was a receptive Congress and the state legislatures were likewise receptive to new legislation and regulations.”

Minnesota group pushed for national policy in ’74
In the fall of 1974, Belau led a group to Washington to tell President Gerald Ford about the need for a national policy on the needs and civil rights of people with disabilities. 

Afterward, Belau told the newspapers that Ford “was very receptive” to the suggestions, which directly led to congressional legislation and a presidential call for a White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals.

Another original council member was Fred Hirsekorn, who had become involved in disability rights decades earlier. After moving to St. Paul in the 1960s as an engineer with Economics Laboratories (now called Ecolab) he heard over and over from restaurant owners about the high costs of training dishwashers who would invariably soon quit. He helped organize a training and employment program for people with developmental disabilities that, after much resistance, finally caught on at local restaurants and hotels.

Hirsekorn said the council helped centralize and focus the groups seeking legislation and policy changes. “We discovered everyone was protecting their own turf, and there were many duplicating efforts,” he said.

The 1980s saw the council addressing building access issues and employment opportunities as a result of implementation of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which addressed discrimination in programs and services that received or benefited from federal funding.

Transportation policies were discussed, state buildings surveyed for accessibility and job fairs held. Accessibility to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, for example, was a big issue, and accessible shuttles were made available for all games at the Dome in spring 1982. They weren’t used much, though, and within months shuttles were available only when crowds exceeded 30,000 people.

A voting access bill was passed in the state, the first step in making the democratic process available to all. That process continues today, with the use of machines available for voters with disabilities.

Freeman-Mahon ‘team’ worked on disability issues
Mike Freeman, now Hennepin County attorney, was a state senator from 1983 to 1991, serving on the Finance Committee when substantial funding for accessibility was appropriated.

Freeman said his longtime Senate aide, Florence Mahon, helped him focus on issues for people with disabilities. Florence had lost a leg as a result of polio.

“When I asked her to work for me at the Capitol, she said it was the first time anyone had offered her a full-time job,” he recalled. “She’d had part-time offers, but never full-time, because of her disability.”

Together, they stayed in tune with disability issues.

“When there was an effort to do away with a lot of councils, I went to bat for the Council on Disabilities, because it had done some very good things. And I’m sure Flo said to me: ‘This is one we should keep, Michael.’ And we did.”

Freeman also supported efforts to get massive funding for state building accessibility projects, as championed by Gov. Rudy Perpich.

“Perpich wanted to fix the whole world in one shot, but we realized we had to do it a little at a time,” Freeman said.

With passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, accessibility efforts escalated. Minnesota already had been making progress, and Margot Imdieke Cross, MSCOD’s accessibility specialist, was in much demand.

“The ADA provided muscle to demand that things get done,” she said. “The 1973 Rehabilitation Act had required anyone getting federal funds to remove barriers, but people didn’t take it seriously; it didn’t always get done.”

In 1999, Willshire was appointed chair of the council and, four years later, became executive director. She’s had to deal with state budget cuts.

“We’ve narrowed our focus a bit, and budget cuts in 2001 meant three staff positions had to be cut, including a health care specialist,” she said. The council now works with other agencies and advocacy groups to assure that it’s wide-ranging mission is accomplished.

In that vein, the council was instrumental in forming the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens With Disabilities, a group of 100 organizations that band together to advocate at the Legislature.

Access remains a top priority, whether it’s concerning building codes, light rail cars or voting machines. Parking for those with disabilities – such things as advocating for  rules on downtown parking meters and helping with permits for drivers with disabilities – remains  a focus. There’s always a need to interpret and implement the ADA, including the changes passed this fall.

The council has worked on policies that help people stay in the community; it also tracks and promotes transportation issues throughout the state, an issue that disproportionately affects people with disabilities. 

And the council offers town hall video conferences on such important public policy issues as transportation, health care, education and employment, connecting via webcam with people around the state.

“With the trend toward less government, we try to work more effectively with other agencies and groups, making sure they always have the disability perspective,” Willshire said.

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