Colleen Starkloff speaking at Fontbonne University's December 2011 commencement

Uploaded by StarkloffChannel on 21.12.2011

Dr. Golden, Mrs. Golden, members of the Board of Directors, Faculty, Staff, graduates and
families, my family and friends, Good morning. It’s my honor to be here today. Thank you
for your warm welcome.
To the graduates-Congratulations! You’ve worked hard and given it your all to get
you to this day. I wish you the very best and brightest future. Enjoy today. Tomorrow
is just on the horizon and that’s when you really have to concentrate on how you will
best use the knowledge you’ve gained, and the gifts and talents you possess, in a way
that maximizes your potential.
As Dr. Golden said, the Fontbonne mission challenges you to think critically, act
ethically and to assume responsibility as citizens and leaders long after graduation.
I’ve come here today to challenge you to live that mission by becoming agents for change.
What do I want you to change? Societal attitude toward disability. Your attitude toward an
issue drives how you will approach it. But first, you must look within yourselves and
think about your own perception of disability; it’s a normal function of life and what matters
most is that we are all people first and a disability doesn’t define who we are, it’s
our character, integrity and humanity that does. If we can all approach disability in
a positive way, the world will become more welcoming toward people with disability.
Initially, both my husband, Max Starkloff, and myself were invited to address you. I’ve
brought his words and his spirit with me today. So indeed both Max and I are here on this
podium before you.
I am proud that Fontbonne chose to dedicate the Fall Semester, 2011 to the study and awareness
of Disability. It surely exemplifies your mission. The inspiration for this came from
Dr. Margaret Gray and Dr. Susan Lenihan. They wanted to celebrate the Americans with Disabilities
Act of 1990. I thank them, Dr. Golden and faculty members, for their support. The ADA
is the most profoundly important civil rights legislation for people with disabilities in
this country’s history yet we have so far to go to even the playing field with the rest
of the general population. I hope the students who participated in the events that were put
together this past semester, experienced profound learning, enabling you to become an agent
for change in the world. Before you can change something, you have to first understand it.
I don’t say that lightly become an agent for change in the world. I learned to become
an agent for change through my husband. He had been in a car accident in 1959 and was
quadriplegic due to a spinal cord injury. He used a manual wheelchair that he could
barely push himself. He lived at home for 4 years and went through many attendants,
who helped him get bathed, dressed and out of bed. But they were unreliable and expensive.
He ended up in a nursing home because in the early 60’s, ongoing attendant support was
not available as a community option to the general public and primarily only to the wealthy.
He was 26 years old when he entered that institution and the average age of the people who lived
there was 80 years old. If he didn’t do something dramatic, he was afraid he would die there.
The attitude back then was that someone had to take care of disabled people. But he
wanted to take care of himself.
So Max, never a quitter, began to plot his escape. He thought that housing and attendants
were critical issues to start working on. He also realized that he wasn’t the only
person who needed this. He began meeting other disabled people and organizing a grassroots
effort in St. Louis to change public attitudes toward the disabled, and public access for
people with disabilities. It wasn’t easy. In the late 60’s Max got a power wheelchair.
He was elated. While most people saw wheelchairs as symbols of tragedy, he saw his new chair
as liberating! He could wheel around independently. But public buildings had steps, you couldn’t
get up curbs, you could not ride a bus or train and housing was not accessible to people
with disabilities. He founded Paraquad in 1970 to begin working on eliminating these
barriers and improving public attitude.
He also traveled to Berkeley, CA where he met a motley crew of disabled advocates, led
by Ed Roberts, John Hessler and Hale Zukas. Ed had polio, slept in an iron lung at night
and had a ventilator mounted on his power wheelchair during the day. John had a spinal
cord injury, was quadriplegic, and used a power wheelchair. Hale had cerebral palsy
and used a communication device that he typed on with a stick mounted to a helmet he wore
every day. These men, and others with significant disabilities, like Max, had started out living
in an institution--on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. They, too, were tired
of having other people decide who, and how, and at what time they would get out of bed
every day. They banded together, pooled their benefits checks and began to hire students
to be their attendants and assist them with the most personal of needs so that they could
actively participate in campus life. This was the first time for most of them that they
had control over their bodies and their lives. They created a disabled students program on
campus and went from hiring attendants to installing ramps, curb cuts, and making classrooms
accessible to all students. When they graduated, they used their campus advocacy success to
create the first Independent Living Center in the world. From that Center they could
pursue the same types of changes they had made on campus, in the city of Berkeley. Equality,
independence, accessibility and attitudinal change were the goals. Their ideas caught
on like wild fire and within a few short years, independent living centers were cropping up
all over the United States. The Disability Rights Movement was born!
Max was energized to hear their story and have new friends whom he could work and strategize
with. He returned to St. Louis empowered to continue his efforts to change the world.
And that’s how it works. One person meets another person. They talk about issues they
both care about and the next thing you know, they’re creating a revolution!
I came along in 1973. I took a job as the physical therapist at the nursing home where
Max lived. I was fascinated by this handsome, intelligent visionary who told me that people
with significant disabilities shouldn’t have to live in nursing homes simply because they
can’t get out of bed by themselves. He told me he could be in charge of his own life and
make his own decisions about how he would live, and that other people with disabilities
could do the same. His personality was electric-his vision revolutionary. I fell in love. I decided
that there were plenty of physical therapists in the world but not enough agents for change.
I not only joined up I married him! Lucky me! We were a team and we learned from our
experiences and from other people with disabilities about what needed to be changed.
When we started out Paraquad was a Mom and Pop organization Max and me.
It was the mid-sixties. People were advocating for the rights of women and African Americans.
We were in an unpopular war in Vietnam and people were questioning authority. It was
a perfect time for people with disabilities to question authority over them. Disabled
people began to believe that they could control their own lives.
We worked on curb ramps in the city and county of St. Louis and lifts on buses. We were told
that these were costly and useless ideas. After all, people said, you never see
people in wheelchairs out on the street. If the expression No, duh had been coined
by then, that’s what we would have said. Of course you didn’t see them. You couldn’t
even get off a curb without crossing at alleys and wheeling in the street. It was demonstrative
of societal attitude about disability. Out of sight out of mind.
There were other issues, too: access to housing, education, transportation, sign language interpreters,
Braille, attendants, deinstitutionalization for people with mental illness and employment.
These issues were the same in Berkeley, Minneapolis, Denver, Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago
and Boston. And also in small town America. We met people all over the United States,
and then the world, who had the same aspirations that we did. People like Judy Heumann, Ed
Roberts, Justin and Yoshiko Dart, Marca Bristo, Charlie Carr, Shoji and Yuki Nakanishi and
so many more became our mentors. There was strength in numbers and our collective power
was growing.
Advocates won most of those battles, many of them because of the ADA. With each success,
we were empowered to keep going. We didn’t win them all, but we never gave up.
Max was a self-described average Joe who became a national and international leader.
He was sought for his opinions and advice by local, state and national politicians,
as well as his disabled colleagues. The news media was at our door when some hot disability
issue came up. An Emmy Award winning documentary was made about his views and he instigated
the exhibit The Americans With Disabilities Act Twenty Years Later that is currently
on display at the Missouri History Museum. Max was an agent for change.
If you asked Max and me 40 years ago what was the single greatest barrier facing people
with disabilities, our answer was attitude toward disability. But 33 years later societal
attitude toward disability was still the biggest barrier, despite all the gains advocates had
made. We left Paraquad in 2003 and started the Starkloff Disability Institute to focus
even harder on improving attitudes toward disability.
Max Starkloff was a visionary who saw a need to change attitudes at two levels. Here’s
what he said:
We must influence how society perceives disability, and how people with disabilities
perceive themselves. In order for the Disability Rights Movement to achieve true long-term
success, it is essential that these critical issues be addressed.
If asked to prioritize the two issues, I believe we must focus first on the self-perceptions
of people with disabilities. We need to develop a very aggressive plan to get disabled people
involved proactively in matters which determine their lifestyles and influence the overall
quality of their existence. This doesn’t necessarily mean that each disabled citizen
must become a political or social activist it does mean, however, that they have to
take a more considered look at matters which determine the course of their lives. They
need to study and understand the positions of political candidates of all parties, be
aware of key public policy initiatives at all levels, and speak out when discrimination
toward any person with a disability occurs in our society. In other words, people with
disabilities must be able to exercise their basic rights of citizenship. The more our
voices are heard, the greater our chances of educating the public and policy makers
about critical disability issues.
American society, for the most part, still does not view disability in the context of
civil rights. Instead, many continue to believe that if everyone just understood what the
problems are, they would be compelled to do the right thing. Stated a bit differently,
those who subscribe to such a view likely would wonder how anyone could be other than
supportive of a person with a disability. I see that as paternalistic. Having lived
with a disability for more than (50) years, I’m convinced that while well intentioned,
most people have such a fear of disability that they simply cannot get beyond what amounts
to a patronizing attitude. It’s a means of self-protection from something not understood.
True understanding comes from the knowledge that all people with disabilities deserve
equal opportunities to share in the same amenities our communities have to offer. Nothing more
and nothing less.
He goes on to say that, One out of every five people in this country has a disability,
and the massive economic and political power of this minority group remains largely untapped.
Simply stated, it is imperative that people with disabilities be educated about their
rights and their strength.
Another way to change societal attitudes is to get disabled people into the workforce.
Max saw employment as the Next Big Step toward full equality. Having a job defines
how we view ourselves. Now that you’ve graduated, you plan to get a job and move on toward your
dream of success. Millions of people with disability cannot count on that happening.
Without a job, they are doomed to live a life of poverty. Currently, while one third of
non-disabled Americans are out of work, two thirds of disabled Americans are not working.
Unemployment is the unfulfilled promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act. People
with disabilities are the largest and poorest minority in this country.
Now what does all this have to do with you? We need you. This Movement has stood and grown
on the relationships of all types of people and groups who’ve come together to support
it. And it’s growing around the world. In June, 2011 the World Bank and the World Health
Organization released The World Report on Disability. In it they estimated that 15%
of the world’s population has a disability. That’s one billion people! We all have to
care about the issue of disability and take a positive approach to creating a world that
welcomes all disabled people.
What can you do?
Be an agent for change every day! If you are an educator, include children with disabilities
in your classroom. Take a stand on bullying and teach children acceptance. If you are
an employer, promote hiring people with all types of disabilities and make sure they have
a chance to move up the corporate ladder, just like you want to do. If you have a child
with a disability, believe in her independence. If your work involves assisting disabled people
to change their lives, recommend community options first and assist the disabled person
to make their own decisions. If you get involved in political campaigns, find out what the
candidates’ stand on disability is and educate them if they don’t have a stance. Get to
know your neighbor or co-worker who has a disability. Talk to them about what you’d
talk about with anyone else you meet for the first time: St. Louis as the World Series
Champs; Pujols leaving St. Louis; the Ram’s lousy season; the weather; or some hot news
item. Ask them about how best to include people who have a disability. Don’t turn away.
Believe it or not, change often begins with one person. You can be that one person and
change attitudes about disability. You can think critically, act ethically and assume
responsibility as citizens and leaders We did, and we raised three wonderful children,
too. You, too, can be a revolutionary.
I want to ask you now if you will make a pledge. The only answer to this pledge is I will.
If you can answer affirmatively, I want to hear your answers, so please shout them out.
Will you treat people with disabilities as you want to be treated yourself? I Will
Will you take a stand in support of people with disabilities living full, integrated
lives in the community, just like yourself? I Will
Will you promote hiring people with disabilities and welcome disabled co-workers? I Will
Will you ask political candidates to stand in support of policies that improve lives
for all people with disabilities? I Will Will you be an agent for change in the world?
I Will
I’m counting on you. God bless you with great success.
Thank you!