Local Disabilities Advocate speaks out


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Terry Cunningham can often be found spending his time at Uptown Bill’s, a coffeehouse that supports individuals with disabilities.

The self-described disability advocate, 60, has long been involved with issues affecting the disabled community. His interest started his junior year in high school, when he worked at a playground for children with disabilities. But an accident his senior year — in which he broke his neck and became paraplegic — made disability advocacy his life’s work.

“I’ve dealt with [these problems] personally as well as professionally,” Cunningham said.

His goal, he stressed, is trying to increase awareness of people who live with certain challenges.

“Most every business is going to encounter people with disabilities,” he said.

In recent months, Cunningham has made transportation his focus, as the local SEATS program’s fate was being negotiated by the Iowa City Council and the Johnson County Supervisors.

“Most people with a significant disability don’t have their own transportation, either can’t afford a vehicle of their own, [or] can’t drive a vehicle,” he said.

The problem of transportation is one that Cunningham has experienced personally. Up until about six years ago, he could provide his own transportation, but he no longer can.

“The last six years have been a real shock,” he said. “[I’ve experienced being] at the mercy of somebody else’s schedule.”

Another program that Cunningham advocates for is making gas pumps and service stations more accessible to persons with disabilities, and he’s worked with local legislators to get legislation passed for accessible fuel pumps.

“What we would like is for there to be some kind of a mechanism, for somebody to drive up, roll their windows down, and hit a button that will signal the folks inside,” he said.

Cunningham is also a member of the board for Access 2 Independence, a local nonprofit group dedicated to improving life for those with disabilities.  

“In the time that I’ve known him he’s always been a great resource when I’ve had questions regarding advocacy issues, disability rights, or pretty much anything else related to the Independent Living Movement,” Kate Jacobsen, Executive director for Access 2 Independence, said in an email.

In addition to his individual advocacy, Cunningham helps record a show called “Hello It’s Us,” which is shown on Johnson County Public Access Television. The premise of the show is collaboration among community members to create positive change.

Johnson County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said Cunningham is a go-to person whenever the board seeks information about disability advocacy.

“He is really at the top of his game when it comes to legislative changes and advocacy when it comes to people disabilities,” Neuzil said.

Cunningham wants to clarify through his advocacy that just because someone is disabled doesn’t mean that they aren’t a normal person.

“People with disabilities are just like any other person,” he said. “We want the same things. We have to go about doing them or getting them in different ways based on limitations. Our interests are the same. It’s just a wheelchair. It’s just a cane … that doesn’t define us.”

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