An accessible pioneer

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

By Deane Morrison

When Sue Kroeger took the helm of what is now the Disability Resource Center back in the mid-1980s, disabilities too often were seen as things to be overcome, and the needs of people who had one were often overlooked.

That didn’t sit well with Kroeger, a dynamo not given to accepting the status quo.

“Sue is very strong on the social model of disabilities, which looks on disabilities as a difference, not a deficit,” says Donna Johnson, current director of the DRC.

Before long, Kroeger had moved her office out of Student Affairs and into what is now the Office for Equity and Diversity. The OED environment was ideal for her vision of a world where disabilities, like race and sex, were regarded as part of a person, and access was seen as a civil right, not just something nice to have. She also expanded her office’s reach to serve staff and faculty, as well as students.

In recognition of Kroeger’s ceaseless efforts on behalf of those with disabilities, including her 14 years at the University, she received the first Sue A. Kroeger Lifetime Achievement Award from the Disability Resource Center Oct. 12, 2015. As a measure of her former staff’s esteem for her, a whopping 24 who had left the University decided to come back for the event.

“Sue always wanted to do things more effectively, and was willing to take big risks,” recalls Barbara Blacklock, program coordinator for the DRC. “Once, we were having a meeting off campus, and I drove. Having several people in the car, I was being careful. Then Sue said, ‘Barb, can you just step on it?’ That was typical of her desire to constantly move forward.”

A gifted storyteller, Kroeger was masterful at bringing others to an awareness of the disabled’s entitlement to the same rights of access as everybody else. She backed up her words with numerous deeds:

  • She actively sought grants to create opportunities for people with disabilities. For example, through a collaboration with the Learning Abroad Center, she garnered a Fund for Improvement for Post-Secondary Education grant that created equitable access to study abroad for students with disabilities. “We started with core sites—London, Japan, Mexico, Ecuador, and Australia—and created an accommodation checklist to be used by those sites to determine what was possible for students with disabilities,” says Johnson. “Access Abroad still exists, and about 100 students with disabilities studied abroad last year.”
  • Kroeger had the foresight to look to federal grants that could give students with disabilities similar experiences to nondisabled ones. Examples include the Career Connections program for career counseling and mentoring, and the LEEDS (leadership to educate and empower disabled students) leadership program for students with disabilities.
  • In 1993 Kroeger was instrumental in launching the Disabled Student Cultural Center—the first in the nation.
  • With Gene Chelberg, the first director of the Disabled Student Cultural Center, Kroeger coordinated Disabled and Proud, a national gathering of students with disabilities on the U of M campus in 1994. “It began with her vision,” says Johnson. “We had students from all over the country.”
  • She brought in a physical access coordinator to help the U of M look at, and improve, accessibility in the physical environment.
  • She spearheaded the move to share services with the Office of Information Technology to bring computer accommodations to the U of M. “We started piloting Kurzweil [a computer program to turn text into speech for those with limited or no vision] on her watch,” notes Johnson.

Besides these innovations, Kroeger lists two more points of pride.

“I would say I'm most proud of infusing disability into the campus diversity agenda and administrative structure ... and building a top-notch team of service professionals,” she says.

As indeed she has. 


"Perspectives" stories are the views and opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect any official position of the University of Minnesota.