Recently, I interviewed Gloria Steinbring during an ARC convention. At more than 140,000 members, ARC claims to be the world’s largest community-based organization of and for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“I had a lot of roadblocks growing up,” said 63-year-old ARC member Steinbring. “Kids would tease me because of my disability. They threw rocks at me and broke a couple pair of my glasses. They called me stupid and dumb, and all kinds of names that didn’t fit. Kids were really mean.”
In the 1950s, one unkind neighbor, who didn’t understand Gloria’s intellectual disability, even paid several children to beat up Gloria in the hope that would force her family from the neighborhood. It didn’t work.
At age 23, she left home to live in a 120-resident group home and work in a sheltered workshop in a large Midwestern city. Her parents hated seeing her leave, but understood Gloria would have to learn someday how to live on her own.
By 1974, her body weight had dropped from 120 to 65 pounds because the group home staff was only feeding her salads to eat. Then a staff member wrongly accused her of stealing money and as punishment locked her in a closet for 24 hours.
“Then I went to the doctor and he weighed me,” she said. “He said, ‘My god, you only weigh 65 pounds. I’m putting you in the hospital to bring your weight up.'”
Her case worker soon helped her leave the institution for a community-based program. This program taught her budgeting, grocery shopping skills, and cooking. In late 1974, she married Dean Steinbring, who she had met in the group home. Life was looking up; she and Dean were very happily married. Yet, she had unfinished business.
In 1979, she helped form Advocating Change Together (ACT). With staff help, she was able to successfully lobby city commissioners to close the group home that had created so many of her painful memories. Thirty years later, Steinbring is still active with ACT, which calls itself a “grassroots disability rights organization run by and for people with developmental and other disabilities.”
A widow since 1983, Steinbring lives in an apartment and enjoys the freedom of being able to make her own decisions. Freedom was something she never had in the 120-resident group home. She doesn’t miss that old place one bit.