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An Interview with Ken Rodgers

11/02/2012

KenRodgersWEB

A TLC board member, Ken works at the State of Minnesota Department of Economic Development (DEED). He is chair of the Minneapolis Disability Committee and recently was appointed by the Governor to the State Rehabilitation Council.

Please tell me how you get around, your daily commute?

I start off my day walking to my local bus stop, because I am a transit dependent individual. I live in Minneapolis and work in downtown Saint Paul. I like being on the bus. I like that time to myself.

How long have you been in the Twin Cities?  

I grew up in southern California and taught math and science in the Orange County area of LA. About 20 years ago, I moved to Minnesota to go to nursing school. I fell in love with the weather and how different it was. When I got my nursing license, I got a job right away at Abbott Northwestern as a cardiac nurse. I just loved it and I stayed. In my fourth or fifth year of nursing, I discovered I had an eye disease that left me a year later completely without sight. So I lost my ability to do nursing.

You had to adjust to blindness as an adult?

Exactly. I had to go back to school and learn how to do things again. That included learning to travel using public transportation. I had someone who taught me how to use public transportation to get where-ever I needed to go. It was a very positive thing from the very beginning.

It was part of adjusting to blindness?

Yes, they call it adjustment to blindness training. It’s a part of the vocational rehabilitation system throughout the nation. I was lucky enough to have that education provided at no cost. It’s part of our taxes.

For many people, figuring out how to use the bus can be a barrier.   

Absolutely. I hear that from a lot of people. And a lot of my friends who are car dependent, they say they’ve never even ridden the bus. I find it fascinating. But when I was car happy I never rode the bus either. I “get” that in the car-focused world, public transportation is something you see and drive around but never think about too much. To figure it out the system without any introduction or education or training, has to be a little bit frightening.

Do you have any advice about where to start, for those unfamiliar with riding the bus?

Have somebody take you by the hand, figuratively, and walk you through the system—this is how you get on, this is where you put your money. Those things are so intimidating to people. They don’t know what to do and don’t want to appear dumb or awkward, so they stay away. For me, having someone show me where to sit, how to pull the cord to get off, really did demystify using the bus.

What is your work now?

I found that as a blind person, newly experiencing sight loss in a sighted world, that there’s a whole system to learn to request services that you need. I knew I could get them, but it was up to me to ensure that I got what I needed. I found myself being more of an advocate but that I didn’t have the skills to be effective. I’ve always had a penchant for looking at a system and trying to make it better—to make it easier for someone else who needs that same thing. I learned that there’s a formalized way to do this, which is public policy. I wanted to make lasting change and the only way to do that is to attack the policy part. That’s what got me to the Humphrey Institute. And that led to my current position in the vocational rehabilitation services program at DEED.

What kind of cities or neighborhoods work well for someone who is visually impaired or using a wheelchair?

For me, living in the metropolitan area is the best because I’m close to everything. Being close to a major bus line is certainly something I look for when I look at housing. I want to be in the middle of everything, where I can get anywhere pretty quickly. I am active in the community, so it’s very important to be able to get to places as easy as possible.

Does that also affect the jobs that are open to you?

It certainly has an impact on my decision when I’m looking for a job. I try not to let that hinder my options, but sometimes it can be a deciding factor. I’ve talked to some of my friends, for whom absolutely, it’s a top priority.

The Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. What have been the barriers to implementation?

You have hit on my complete passion and reason for living right now. The law is the civil rights act for people with disabilities. Although it’s a good solid law, it didn’t have any teeth. The ADA requires all federal agencies to implement it, but until recently it wasn’t interpreted to apply to public entities. Now it clearly is a responsibility for all. The law says that programs and services provided by an organization or an agency have to be accessible. That’s the biggest success and has led to things like curb cuts on curb corners and accessible pedestrian signals.

Is there now a tool kit so entities can figure out what they need to do?

There’s an ADA.gov web site including tool kits and best practices and how-tos and implementation guidelines. Everything you would ever want to know about how to implement ADA features into your programs and how to make them accessible. It’s taken people with disabilities working through the system to develop all this process. It’s slowly been gathering momentum. We are finally at a place where we’re seeing the implementation being commonly accepted and looked-for.

How did you become involved with TLC?

In giving testimony at public hearings, I found myself either speaking right after Barb Thoman [TLC’s executive director] or right before and our words were almost mirror images of each other. We were fighting for the same things—our missions were identical. That’s what initially got me interested in the work of TLC.

As a board member, what motivates your work with the organization?

I’m able to add the voice and perspective of the disability community to broaden some of the campaigns that TLC is involved with. This might have happened on its own, but would have taken much longer. When I came onto the board of directors I knew that I would find ways to bridge the two communities. It’s worked really well, with some work behind the scenes, some more visually, out in public.

What would people see?

At some of the public events TLC is holding, there are more people with disabilities present. When you have a crowd of people who are all able-bodied, everybody looks the same, nobody sticks out. But when you have a blind person with a white cane, or a blind person with a guide dog, or a person in a wheel chair with all those able-bodied people, doing the same thing, it makes the awareness different. People see the bigger crowd differently when there are a variety of people. Within the disability community, we’ve been looking for ways to raise awareness of public safety for a long time. But if we can work together, how much more powerful can that be.

In closing, I would hope that other individuals reading this would be piqued with interest. I hope they will participate and find through working with TLC that their voice will be bigger. 

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