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As a Young Peace Corps volunteer, Audrey Aanes was inspired by the animation and gumption of Ethiopian children who were injured by land mines. Physical disabilities were not a barrier to their energy and enthusiasm to learn. When she came to Alaska she embarked on a career devoted to education, advocacy and action for and with youth and adults who experience substantial physical disabilities (e.g. spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, etc.).
When she started teaching in Anchorage in the early seventies, kids with disabilities were segregated in a special school. She initially had 12 students with physical disabilities from 5 to 16 years old in her classroom. Through the years she saw many bright, mentally capable disabled students graduate with limited options after high school, often placed in a nursing home surrounded by seniors experiencing dementia and alzheimer’s disease.
Motivated to change the status quo, Audrey quit her tenured teaching job and set out to help those young people on the path of independent living. Her challenge was to promote awareness and acceptance of disabled persons in order to accomplish the goals of being respected, accepted, and integrated into the communities of their able-bodied neighbors. At the time there was no accessible housing, transportation, restrooms, restaurants, theaters, or parking. There were few vocational training opportunities or jobs for adults who experienced a substantial physically disability.
With inspiration from some national leaders, such as Ed Roberts, the “Father of Independent Living” from California, Audrey initiated Alaska’s first independent living program, which became Access Alaska. She wrote proposals, solicited funding and letters of support, talked with legislators and governors about changing laws, and learned to speak up at public hearings. Her Minnesota upbringing taught her to be respectfully soft spoken. However, the frustration of her experience asking politely for basic rights for people who experience disabilities taught her how to grow her own voice.
In 1980 they received their first state grant funds for an accessible van, a part-time driver and independent-living-skills training. They developed the first attendant-care program and worked with the Alaska State Housing Authority to set up accessible housing, which was achieved in 1982 when eight young adults moved out of nursing homes and into four accessible two-bedroom apartments in downtown Anchorage!
Services were expanded to a Fairbanks office and the program thrived. Audrey also recruited international volunteers and people with disabilities to participate in adaptive wilderness and sports activities throughout Alaska, including kayaking, skiing and camping. In 1993 Audrey proceeded to develop Arctic Access, the independent living program in northwest Alaska serving Nome and Kotzebue and the surrounding villages where she continues to work today.
By following her passion, hundreds of mentally competent adults who experience physical disabilities are living successful independent lives. Today there are Centers for Independent Living throughout the state with outreach to many sites in rural Alaska. There are accessible housing modification programs, flexible transit programs, on-the-job training programs, home-based care services directed by the person with the disability, state laws that require access to public facilities, and political advocacy efforts managed by people with disabilities.
Audrey Aanes is often referred to as the Mother of the Independent Living movement in Alaska. She says there were many passionate people involved. She continues to be inspired by the elders and people with disabilities who strive to live independent lives today. Audrey grew her voice and all Alaskans are the beneficiary.