MINNEAPOLIS — U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank has an unusual habit. When he goes into a store, restaurant or other business where nobody knows that he’s a federal judge, he checks out the employees. Then he asks to speak to the manager.

If he spots people with disabilities working in the establishment, Frank congratulates the manager on hiring them. If he doesn’t see any employees with disabilities, he asks the manager why not. Depending on the answer, he tells the manager he’ll encourage or discourage friends from shopping there.

“I just want to encourage everybody to have a truly diverse workforce,” Frank said.

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Although more workplaces are working toward diversity and inclusion, much of the focus has been on people of different races, genders, national origins, religions or LGBTQ identities. Those efforts often overlook people with disabilities, Frank said.

“I often say we learn a lot more from people with disabilities than almost anybody else,” Frank said. People who don’t know those with disabilities may have preconceptions about what they’re like, but “those stereotypes fall away if we can live together, work together, play together.”

Frank has done more than speak to employers on behalf of people with disabilities. Rulings he has made have improved the lives of people with developmental disabilities, protecting them from abuse, allowing them to vote and helping integrate them into their communities.

Frank’s rulings are among the milestones mentioned in “An Unfinished Journey: Civil Rights for People with Developmental Disabilities and the Role of the Federal Courts,” an exhibit on display in the lobby of the Diana E. Murphy U.S. Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis.

The exhibit traces the history of progress for people with developmental disabilities to become more independent and self-advocating. It’s cosponsored by the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and the state chapters of the Federal Bar Association and the Disability Bar Association.

“People with disabilities confront stigma and discrimination on a regular basis. It is a shameful part of our country’s past and present,” he said in connection with a 2023 decision. “Ultimately, we will all be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable members of our society.”

Listening means a lot

Frank traces his concern for the rights of people with disabilities to his childhood, when he watched how his father treated a cousin, Dutch, who had a developmental disability. Dutch accompanied the family to church and worked in Frank’s father’s TV and appliance store.

“I think that being taught at an early age, ‘Look, he has hopes and dreams like you do (and) we’re going to include him in everything we do’ had a big effect on me,” Frank said.

Later, he got to know parents of children with disabilities and learned from that experience. “It changes your attitude,” he said.

Similarly, when the choir director at his daughters’ school “insisted that anybody, no matter what their disability, could participate in the choir,” his daughters’ attitudes changed in some ways, too.

“There is not a judge in Minnesota, and probably not in the United States, who has done more for disabilities than Judge Frank,” said Chief Judge Patrick J. Schiltz of the U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota.

Schiltz moderated an event to celebrate the exhibit’s opening, with speakers, an exhibit of paintings by artists with disabilities called “I Am,” and young people with disabilities singing and reading their poetry.

Frank spoke briefly, accompanied by Karen Loven, a disability activist who has a developmental disability and who also spoke.

“I love going to Judge Frank’s office, he’s very kind, and I love the way he treats people,” Loven said. “I’ve been called the R-word. I’m not retarded, I’m a human being, and I wish people could respect me and treat me like the equal that I am.”

Surprisingly recent milestones

What is perhaps most astounding in the exhibit is, while much progress has been made in improving the lives of people with disabilities, how recently some of the milestones occurred.

A panel near the beginning lays out the delays. People with developmental disabilities were granted the legal right to treatment in 1974, or 117 years after Minnesota became a state in 1857, and gained the right to education the following year.

For decades, people with developmental disabilities were routinely confined to institutions, where they often spent their whole lives. The last Minnesotan left an institution as recently as 1999. (Thirty-three other states continue to institutionalize kids, with about 16,000 currently living in large public facilities.)

Their basic civil rights were granted in 1990 with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Right to freedom from restraint and seclusion came in 2011, after a state report found that residents were being placed in metal hand and foot cuffs, face-down, even when they hadn’t been behaving aggressively.

They also were secluded for long periods and not allowed family visits. Families brought a class-action suit that was settled out of court. Frank signed their agreement, which prohibited the use of physical restraints, seclusion and other painful procedures.

One panel tells the story of Minneapolis doctor Charles F. Dight, who founded the Minnesota Eugenics Society, helping write a bill that allowed the involuntary sterilization of more than 2,200 people with disabilities between 1925 and 1945. Dight also wrote Adolf Hitler, praising the dictator’s “plan to stamp out mental inferiority among the German people,” and wrote in the Minneapolis Journal that Hitler’s actions, “if carried out effectively, will make him the leader of the greatest rational movement for human betterment the world has ever seen.”

History, of course, does not see it that way.

What’s more surprising is that Minneapolis once had a street named after Dight. It has since been renamed Cheatham Avenue, after Capt. John Cheatham, Minneapolis’ first Black firefighter.

That was in March 2022, a mere two years ago.

The exhibit’s title — “An Unfinished Journey” — suggests that there’s more left to do. Minnesota has not been perfect in recognizing civil rights for people with developmental disabilities. For instance, the state’s unemployment rate for people with disabilities is nearly 10%, compared with about 4% for people without disabilities. Still, that’s better than the rates for the United States as a whole, which are about 13% and 6% respectively.

“I think we’re recognized as doing a lot of really good things, and as a more progressive state,” Frank said. “I’m sure some people would say there are still some areas you should look at.”

“An Unfinished Journey: Civil Rights for People with Disabilities and the Role of the Federal Courts” will remain on display in the lobby of the Diana E. Murphy U.S. Courthouse in Minneapolis until July 17, after which it will move to the Warren E. Burger Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in St. Paul. “I Am,” the exhibit of art by people with disabilities, will move to St. Paul from May 16 to July 18.

© 2024 Star Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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