At a critical juncture in Michael Rogers’ life, his disabilities caused him to question whether he wanted to go on. He had endured his K-12 years in an educational system that had placed him in separate special education classes, and when he finally graduated from high school he felt stupid, useless and scared—someone without a future.
Born in 1968 with cerebral palsy (CP), Rogers and his family struggled with the physical effects of the disease. When he was seven he underwent a major operation and was placed in a body cast to prevent his hips from dislocating. The procedure was so painful that he went into a near-fatal shock. Despite the ordeal, Rogers was smiling the next year when he posed as a poster child for Easter Seals.
Along with his physical disabilities, Rogers had problems with learning. From the beginning, educators assumed his inability to grasp reading, writing and arithmetic was related to his CP. It wasn’t until he was a junior in high school that he was diagnosed with dyslexia. “My Individualized Educational Plan was not effective for my education,” says Rogers. “I could have learned so much more had they started with the premise that I could learn.”
Rogers’ first attempt at advocating for his rights came during high school—and it wouldn’t be his last. Wanting to develop more upper body strength, he signed up for a weight training class, but it was located on the second floor. There were no elevators to accommodate his wheelchair. “I had to crawl up the stairs to get to the class. Later, the football team carried me up there,” Rogers recalls. “I went to the principal and told him this was wrong. It was the first time I used my voice to try to create change.” His parents, however, were stunned to learn their son had made such a fuss and advised him to drop the issue, which he did.
The end of high school brought Rogers, unable to read and write, to a crossroads. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with my life. I didn’t think I had a future. I was really scared, and I felt hopeless.”
However, Rogers’ generally positive outlook prevailed, and he decided to take a basic adult education course at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia, Washington. Cindy Uhrich, who worked in student services, convinced Rogers to audit a regular college course—no stress, no official grades. She received permission from the administration to read test questions to him and also arranged for tutors.
He passed his first test. “I cried like a baby. That passing grade meant more to me than my diploma. It was the first time in my life I knew I was not stupid.” He now has earned 15 college credits.
Since that first passing grade, Rogers has journeyed to far more places than he ever dreamed possible. In 1994, he introduced and gained sponsorship and passage of Washington state’s first Wheelchair Lemon Law. From 1995 to1997 he was employed by People First of Washington as a mentor for high school students with disabilities and was a trainer for the organization’s Reaching My Own Greatness self-determination curriculum. From 1996 to 2001, he worked as a customer services specialist on a state self-determination program and as a policy developer at the Division of Development Disabilities (DDD) in Olympia, Washington. In 2002, with the help of Eastside Employment Services, Rogers began working for the DDD at the Department of Social and Health Services in Seattle.
At DDD, Rogers coordinates the Mentorship Project, connecting people with developmental disabilities living in the community with individuals choosing to leave institutions or other residential settings. His idea for the project first took shape several years ago when Washington began downsizing Fircrest, its largest state institution. Residents with disabilities were moving into the community, many for the first time, and Rogers saw the potential for people with disabilities already in the community to mentor those in the process of relocating. The project’s goal is to support people with disabilities in becoming familiar with their local neighborhoods and resources and to help them develop relationships with other members of the community.
“This is a peer relationship,” says Rogers. “The mentors are there to support their partners in achieving whatever they want to achieve.” And it’s not always something big. One woman’s goal was to learn how to make a banana split. All her life someone had done it for her, and she wanted to be able to create her own dessert masterpiece. These may not always be life-altering skills, but as Rogers states, “They feel good in the heart.” Mentors can help with tasks such as setting up a functional living environment, arranging for medical and social services, or introducing the finer points of grocery shopping. This year the program has spread statewide. Rogers envisions similar programs developing throughout the nation, and he recently presented his Mentorship Project to the Idaho Developmental Disabilities Council and the national TASH Conference, a forum for dialogue among individuals with disabilities, families, researchers, educators and scholars.
With his intense interest in politics, Rogers has also made himself well-known at the Washington State capitol building, which for decades was inaccessible to people with physical disabilities. He comments, “I told the governor, ‘I can vote for you, but I cannot get in to see you.’”
Thanks to his lobbying efforts as an appointed member of the Governor’s Committee on Developmental Disabilities, the old heavy doors were replaced in the early 1990s with electronic ones. Originally the restroom doors were also inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair. “One day I really had to use the bathroom, so I had to get out of my wheelchair, open the door as far as I could and then crawl on the floor to get to the facilities.” Now, Rogers smiles every time he visits the capitol and sails through his electronic doors.
Equally frustrating was being unable to attend political caucuses because the meetings were usually held in private, non-accessible homes. He lobbied to change that, and it’s now mandatory for caucuses to be held in accessible public buildings.
Taking a big step from the state’s capitol to the nation’s capitol, Rogers was appointed to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities (PCPID) in January 2003. He travels quarterly to Washington DC to participate in the process that helps shape national policies and practices affecting people with developmental disabilities. The committee consists of 21 citizen members appointed by the president and 13 ex officio federal government members. The citizen members include parents, family members, self-advocates, community leaders and professionals in the field of intellectual disabilities.
Rogers and Wendy Smith, the only two individuals with developmental disabilities on the PCPID, pushed hard for the group to change its original name, the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation. That name dated back to 1961, when President Kennedy formed a panel to advise him on issues concerning people with mental retardation. “The label of retardation has haunted me and my family. It was important to change the name because when people hear it, they assume we can’t do anything for ourselves.” It was a hard sell to the committee, which had voted down a name change twice already, but Rogers made his voice heard. In July 2003, President Bush signed the executive order for the revised name.
“I think I raised the bar with the committee,” he says. “I have made a difference there as a person with thoughtful ideas, and I have changed the committee’s perception of a person with a disability. We label too much. Just because I’m in this chair doesn’t mean I don’t have a brain.”
Technology has been instrumental in helping Rogers raise that bar. The first time he attended a PCPID session, he was handed reams of printed material to review and discuss in committee sessions—regardless of the fact he cannot read. His assistant, Lisa Fox from Eastside Employment Services, devised a creative solution. Using a personal FM system designed for the hearing impaired, she quietly reads the information into a microphone, which transmits her voice to Rogers’ headset. He also utilizes Dragon Naturally Speaking word recognition software to talk to his computer, and Jaws software reads him his email. “Assistive technology has changed my world,” says Rogers, who now serves on the PCPID Assistive Technology Subcommittee.
Rogers also says that getting married “totally rocked my world.” He met his wife Emily through The Arc of King County, an organization of and for people with developmental disabilities and their families, where Emily works. He proposed marriage to her at the state capitol building in Olympia, in front of the doors he helped make accessible, and they were married in September 2002. “Emily is my life,” he says passionately. “Sometimes it’s difficult with the two of us having disabilities, but we deal with it.”
Because both Rogers and his wife are employed fulltime, they didn’t face the common dilemma encountered by many couples with disabilities who marry—a reduction of SSI benefits. “People should be able to marry regardless of income,” says Rogers. As the national cochair of Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), he facilitated a meeting with Martin Gerry, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security, to advocate for changes in Social Security regulations. Rogers’ advice to couples contemplating marriage: “If you really love each other, then don’t let your disabilities stop you. You would only be cheating yourselves.”
Rogers plans to continue his advocacy work and public speaking engagements, with an emphasis on becoming more involved in the political process. Ultimately, he would like to work as a lobbyist or aid to a senator or legislator. “Politics really jazzes me,” says Rogers, an admitted C-SPAN addict. He also envisions creating a national think tank for people with disabilities, tackling major issues such as accessible housing, employment and assistive technology.
In the meantime, Rogers will continue pushing those he meets every day to be their best and believe in themselves. In his own life, his disability has allowed him to go places he never imagined when he was struggling in high school. “I have met more people in my life because of my disability. I met my wife, who has a disability. I met the president of the United States, and I have had the opportunity to make positive changes for all people with disabilities,” says Rogers. “My advice is to reach for the stars.”
by Danielle M. Clarneaux
For information about the Mentorship Project, contact
or call 206.568.5682
Danielle Clarneaux, a freelance writer and public relations coordinator for Eastside Employment Services, resides in the Seattle area with her hearing service dog Rosie.