National Disability Week at UMD sparks serious discussion

Disability rights activists gathered Tuesday at UMD to discuss the evolution and hindrances of accessibility programs. “Attitude still plays a part in impeding progress to equality,” said Scott Anderson, longtime advocate and change-maker for accessibility programs.

A gunshot wound left Anderson with a spinal cord injury at age 15. He’s used a wheelchair ever since. Before his injury, Anderson said he thought wheelchairs were only for those in hospitals.

“I’ve learned people don’t just sit in them,” Anderson said. “People have a life in them.”

The panelists concurred that ignorance of those with disabilities still prevails throughout modern society.

“You’d like to think it isn’t the case,” Anderson said.

“It’s political will, attitudes, stereotypes and stigma,” said Penny Cragun, director of UMD Disability Resources.

Despite evidence that those with mental disabilities are more likely to be victims rather than create a crime, Cragun said the media’s purveyance of mental illness creates stereotypes.

“How often do we hear in the news that someone murdered someone because of mental health issues?” Cragun asked. “It stems from fear and ignorance. Society is still trying to understand mental and physical disability.”

One step toward that understanding is accessibility—an issue panelists said was improving in the Arrowhead region.

Duluth features curbs cut to allow access, doors wired for automatic opening, and the Duluth Transit Authority’s curb-to-curb transportation services to disabled persons with restricted access to bus lines.

“But there’s still a long way to go,” Anderson said.

Bridget Riversmith, a member of the Duluth Commission on Disabilities, said, “Disability is not inherent of the person who is disabled. It’s the relationship with the environment, whether physical, educational, or social.”

Accessibility programs alleviate the strained or “disabled” relationship between people and their environment.

“And how we feel about the human condition as a society impedes progress for everyone,” Riversmith said. “We’re fixated on perfect, and that leaves out a huge swath of the human spectrum unaccounted for.”

A solution to inaccessibility and inequality is the theory of “universal design,” which the panelists praised as the promotion of flexible, utile innovations.

The fifth principle of universal design is tolerance for error.

“I think we should apply that principle everywhere,” said Riversmith. “Until then, we are all disabled.”


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