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Activist Kathryn McInnis-Misenor fights for the rights of people with disabilities and injustice

“I was a working-class child, and I saw the income inequalities around me,” says Kathryn McInnis-Misenor, 59, of Saco. “As a reader of history, I came to hate all injustice. As a teenager, I knew I could take action and make a difference in the world, and I did. And I have never stopped, and I never will.”

Of all the injustices McInnis-Misenor has fought to right, the closest to her heart has been rights for people with disabilities. A quarter-century after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, President Obama invited her to the White House, and she brought her daughter Sara, who is now 18.

“Sara is hearing impaired, so to bring her to the White House and to hear her say, ‘Mom, what you all did is incredible’—she understood that her life had been changed because of those who had fought before her,” McInnis-Misenor says. “That was one of the proudest moments of my life.”

The first time McInnis-Misenor made national headlines, she was surprised to be newsworthy. It was 1980 and she’d been elected to Saco City Council. At 21, she was the nation’s youngest person to be elected to public office—not to mention the youngest woman and one of the only people with a disability elected to municipal office at that time. And Saco City Hall wasn’t wheelchair accessible—yet.

Kathryn McInnis-Misenor fights to right all kinds of injustices, but the closest to her heart has been rights for people with disabilities. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

“I won the fight,” McInnis-Misenor says. “They moved the meetings, and soon we made City Hall accessible.”

Kathy was the sixth of a dozen kids in a Scottish-Irish family in Saco that had been justice-minded for generations. “I was an active 5-year-old,” McInnis-Misenor says, explaining that with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she went from using bandages to crutches to a wheelchair. “When I was no longer able to stand, I shucked corn or fed and changed the babies. When people suggested I go to an institution, Mom said no, they wanted me to be strong and independent.”

The family made the school district hire private tutors, because the Saco schools weren’t wheelchair accessible. But when McInnis-Misenor was going to miss out on following her siblings into Thornton Academy, Mrs. McInnis had another idea.

“She got the football team to carry me up and down stairs,” McInnis-Misenor laughs. “I just went to my 40th high school reunion and we realized it’s different now for students with disabilities. And it’s because of parents like my mother. She’s the reason that I graduated high school with everyone else.”

McInnis-Misenor joined the Maine Association of Handicapped Persons, and in 1981 MAHP organized the first civil rights convention for people with disabilities in the nation. More than 500 Mainers came.

Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

“It was breathtaking and game-changing,” McInnis-Misenor says, talking about the power in uniting people with different disabilities. “We issued a statement demanding our civil rights. My God, we were so kickass!”

In 1981, South Portland was buying new buses that would be just as inaccessible as the ones being replaced. As a community organizer, McInnis-Misenor helped craft a campaign that began with town hall meetings and escalated to radio ads with Maine humorist Marshall Dodge saying, “You can’t get there from here, dear.” The South Portland bus company was selling side-of-the-bus ads, and MAHP ordered bus advertisements proclaiming: “If you can’t walk, you can’t ride. Support access for all.”

The day that the new (but still not accessible) buses went into service, MAHP members made their point another way, with direct action—a bus slow-down. McInnis-Misenor explains, “Those who had crutches or whatever took their sweet time walking onto the bus and saying, ‘Oh, I was going to go to the mall today, but since my friend can’t get on the bus, I don’t think I am.’ And then passing out flyers explaining that disability rights are civil rights.”

MAHP sued South Portland, Portland and Westbrook to make all public buses accessible to people with disabilities and won at the state level. Maine became the first state to declare access to public transportation to be a civil right. The inaccessible buses were replaced, and McInnis-Misenor marveled that she—and hundreds of other Mainers—could go where they wanted to go, independently and without advance notice.

Then the fight shifted to the national courts. In 1985 MAHP sued the U.S. Department of Transportation and won, forcing them to release regulations regarding accessible transportation. When the regulations didn’t call for full accessibility, McInnis-Misenor says, “we combined every disability group working on accessible transit in the nation and we filed before the First District Court. And we won.” That was in 1989.

Building on her experience with coalition building, McInnis-Misenor worked with a large consortium of disabilities rights groups that spearheaded the ADA legislation that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life.

As a teenager, I knew I could take action and make a difference in the world, and I did. And I have never stopped.

“That was one those take-your-breath-away moments,” says McInnis-Misenor, who was there at the Senate chamber in 1990 for the historic vote. “The cheers were so deafening that the walls were just reverberating.”

At that moment, McInnis-Misenor was desperate to call her mother to tell her the news but was unable to fit her wheelchair into a phone booth. “My friend, who was a little person, jumped up on the seat and put the coins in for me,” she says. “We laughed and I said, ‘Never again will we have to do this.’”

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Southern Maine and a master’s degree in social work, community organizing, public policy, planning and financial administration from Boston College, McInnis-Misenor says she has evolved from a “rabble-rouser” to a “professional organizer leading social justice movements,” from union organizing in Virginia to anti-apartheid in South Africa.

These days, McInnis-Misenor and her husband Brett Misenor are going with Sara on college visits. McInnis-Misenor is advocating for indigenous people in many parts of the world, doing genealogical research to reunite families, teaching financial independence and, as always, working as a community organizer and activist.

“Anywhere you can make a difference, make a difference,” she says. “Even if it’s small, it matters.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough.

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