“Let’s start labeling jars, not human beings, because we all are equal.” That statement, delivered by Kurt Rutzen in a speech at the first annual conference of The Arc Montana, sums up the theme of the two-day event at the Hilton Garden Inn in Billings. Rutzen, a disability rights advocate and member of the national Arc board of directors, told the gathering about his own life’s challenges and how — and why — he speaks up for people with disabilities.
Though he has cerebral palsy and has had to overcome obstacles, Rutzen said he is a rich man, thanks to the support of family and friends. That message reprised a speech he made before the Minnesota Legislature in 2011, which was replayed via You Tube for the Billings audience.
Besides Rutzen, speakers included self-advocate Isaac Baldry of Miles City; Dee Dee Eberle, director of chapter organizing and advocacy for The Arc; and Dr. Tessie Rose Bailey, a professor of special education at MSU-Billings.
Using slides, an iPad and software that augments communication for people who have difficulty speaking or cannot speak at all, Baldry described how he has faced challenges and answered naysayers throughout his life. Today, the 2010 graduate of Custer County High, is a self-employed public speaker, focusing on technology and issues affecting youth.
According to Mary Caferro, coordinator of the fledgling chapter of The Arc in Montana, the conference accomplished all of the goals she and other organizers set for themselves. One goal was to provide meaningful information to people who have an intellectual or developmental disability, their family members and their supporters, Caferro said.
Another goal, she said, was to provide a platform to launch new efforts on issues affecting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And a third goal was to let participants network with one another.
“It accomplished those goals, in my mind,” Caferro said. “And, according to the feedback I’ve received, it accomplished those goals for the people who attended. It was a fabulous conference.”
Underlying all those goals, the conference presented an opportunity to launch The Arc Montana and assess support for having a chapter here.