In a warm, love-filled address Friday, internationally recognized advocate for the disabled, Evelyne Villines, told a crowd of about 300 people gathered at Jefferson County Fair Park they should always work hard, take pride in themselves and set a good example for others.
In recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, disabled people from throughout the Midwest met as part of the grassroots advocacy event to hear Villines' message, socialize and celebrate their contribution as productive members of America's workforce.
Villines, originally from Iowa and herself disabled by polio she contracted as a child, travels worldwide to share her life story and ideas of how to better the lives of disabled people. She meets regularly with their advocates, policymakers and others, and said Friday all employment choices and services must be respected and protected, including options for people with severe disabilities to gain work experience and have access to training programs.
"You must remember that you always have the freedom of choice — the freedom to choose where you want to live and where you want to work," Villines told disabled members of the audience. "It's 'your work, your choice.' Freedom of choice is one of the greatest gifts we can have."
Villines let it be known she was thrilled to speak to the crowd members, some of whom traveled from as far away as Indianapolis, Ind., for the event.
"I can't tell you what it means to my heart to be here today," she said. "You are why I am working at Capitol Hill in Washington."
According to event organizers, the federal government has recently proposed new regulations that threaten employment options for the disabled. Advocacy to members of Wisconsin's congressional delegation by stakeholders has focused on the importance of preserving the right for people with disabilities to freely choose where they want to work.
Villines has held numerous prominent governmental positions, including her appointment by former President Bill Clinton to a committee that works on the behalf of the blind and severely disabled. State and local policymakers, legislators and advocates have been invited to hear her emphasize the importance of protecting a full array of services to ensure the availability of employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
As she gently drove home her message that the freedom of choice must be preserved and enhanced for the disabled, Villines noted her freedom of choice was taken away from her when she contracted polio at age 3. She spent her teen years institutionalized and said that manner of living caused her great psychological pain. She said she empathized deeply with disabled people who may have been insulted at points in their lives by people not sensitive to their feelings.
"I was called 'a crip,' I was called 'a gimp.' I was called a bunch of other names I keep trying to forget," she said. "Many of you have faced this. It hurts and it is wrong."
Villines reminded the disabled gathered Friday that they have a responsibility to work hard, hold their heads high and be a good part of the community.
Earlier in the day, Villines toured Opportunities, Inc. in Fort Atkinson and said she was very impressed with the facility and its large staff of disabled workers.
"Today I saw the wonderful work that you do," she said. "Work gives us the incentive to do more and be better people. If you have a purpose in life that is a great thing, you know someone needs you. It makes you want to get up in the morning. You are the reason I get on plane after plane after plane. We with disabilities have to have a drive and yearning. We want to be first-class citizens.
Villines said the disabled must be willing to talk of their disabilities.
"There is nothing wrong with you," she said. "Today we can say there is something right with you ... We must accept our disabilities and then continue to say we have the same rights as anyone else in society. You can build a life that can be an example to other people ... You set the limit. You climb as high as you want to."