Saturday, November 27, 2010

Laura Hershey, renowned disability rights activist, writer and consultant, dies

Laura Hershey's partner, Robin Stephens, reported Nov. 27 via Facebook that Laura (pictured) died Nov. 26 after a short illness. Laura was known for her excellent long-running column, at Crip Commentary, and for her many years of disability activism. She was also a poet and held an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles.

Laura also wrote a column for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Here's her last column on "The Good and Bad of Gratitude" on Nov. 24. It is a beautiful love letter to her daughter, her partner, her family and the entire disability community.

View more than a dozen interviews with Laura Hershey at It's Our Story.

Here's a wonderful remembrance of Laura from Forward, which includes video clips about her MDA telethon activism.

The Denver Post published her obituary Nov. 28.

A memorial site for Laura has been set up at:

She will be sorely missed as one of the most important voices of the Disability Rights Movement.

Here's how Laura described herself on Facebook:

I'm a writer and poet, with an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. I'm also a consultant and trainer, specializing in disability rights, health policy, and community organizing. I'm an activist for social justice, particularly disability rights, and for economic justice, including the rights of home care workers and other people whose labor supports our independence. You can learn more about my writing and my work on my website, at

Here's a profile of Laura from her undergraduate institution, Colorado College:

Some people love challenge. Laura Hershey thrives on it. She disputed her doctors’ assumptions that spinal muscular atrophy would end her life while she was still a child.

She took exception to any question that she could succeed academically. Today she challenges beliefs, laws, governments, individuals -- anyone or anything she feels threatens the rights of the disabled community.

Laura always knew she would go to college, and she expected to go to the best one available. She came to the CC campus and found it, for the most part, ready to roll. “Right away,” she says, “they found me a dorm room that was accessible to me.”

As she became more involved in campus activities, Laura found some paths that needed changing. She worked as a writer and features editor for the Catalyst student newspaper and had no trouble. She met with other writers and editors at different, accessible locations to discuss and submit her assignments. “Then I became editor in chief,” she recalls, “and I really needed to be there. So they relocated the office from Cutler Hall, which wasn’t accessible, to Cossitt Hall, which was -- if just barely.” Laura found much willingness and few barriers at the college. Only one class, scheduled to be held in one of the smaller houses on campus, had to be relocated.

Prior to graduation, Laura didn’t consider herself an activist. But when she was awarded a Watson Fellowship, she traveled to England to write about the disability rights movement there. The experience was a turning point, and Laura became involved with disability groups, especially those for women, when she returned to Denver. Early in 1985, she attended the National Women’s Studies Conference in Seattle. After meeting Laura, one speaker suggested the conference organizers send Laura to the Nongovernmental Organization Forum on Women in Nairobi later that year. And they did. “That conference jolted me into an awareness of the global disabled community and the issues and possibilities for organizing and activism,” she says. “I was really drawn to the issues and felt like I had an important role to play. It made me make a commitment.”

Today, well known as a disability rights activist and writer, Laura speaks at conferences for disabled and non-disabled alike. She serves as a consultant and trainer for conferences and corporations, and she’s employed half time as the advocacy editor for, an Internet magazine. Colorado College paid tribute to Laura and her work by awarding her an honorary doctorate in 1993.

While Laura used to roll her wheelchair out in front of buses, she says such tactics are no longer the norm. But her fight continues, focusing now on issues involving Social Security benefits, independent living, opposition to the legalization of assisted suicide, and work disincentives. “People with disabilities are often prevented from working for fear of losing crucial benefits,” she explains. On the board of directors of an organization called Not Dead Yet, Laura believes “the media presents the issue as black and white, the pro-life religious perspective and the liberal so-called pro-choice perspective. But we see this as an issue of discrimination based on health status.”

Because of the focus on writing combined with the liberal arts at Colorado College, Laura believes she’s not only a better writer, but also a better advocate -- and a happier person. “Because I was taught to think from a variety of perspectives, I can write an article about a legal issue without having gone to law school, and people take me seriously,” she says. “I can control my own schedule and where I work. I can make my own decisions about what assignments to accept and when to say ‘no.’ My liberal arts education was a real benefit to me, and I’d like to see more people with disabilities take that same opportunity.”