On the back of her electric wheelchair, Audrey Benson left an entertaining compilation of messages in her wake.
“Why be normal? Be free,” read one piece of paper taped near the top.
Another read, “Strong women: Live your life in such a way that when your feet hit the floor in the morning, Satan shudders and says [uh-oh] she’s awake!!”
The signs spoke volumes about Benson, who was never shy about reaching out to people and speaking her mind, friends said. Living with cerebral palsy, she used her outgoing personality and quick wit to advocate for people with disabilities and educate everyone around her, they said.
She died Feb. 20 after falling ill from pneumonia. She was 76.
“She was a dynamic, passionate woman,” said the Rev. Don Portwood, pastor at Lyndale United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, where Benson was a member. “She said she wouldn’t trade her body for anything.”
Benson was raised in Jamestown, N.D., and graduated from what was then called the Crippled Children’s School, now the Anne Carlsen Center. She graduated from Moorhead State in 1969. She worked in Minneapolis as a counselor at Goodwill, and later with the city. She served for a couple of years as president of the United Handicapped Federation. Her proudest advocacy issues included increasing accessibility on mass transit and in the skyways of downtown Minneapolis.
In the early 1980s, Benson was a member of the Minneapolis Advisory Committee on People With Disabilities, which worked to make skyways accessible, former city staffer Billy Binder recalled. The committee “invited City Council members to blindfold themselves and sit in a wheelchair for mobility and visual impairment, then took them to this section of the skyway system and asked them to cope with it,” Binder said. One council member got upset when he reached a spot where there were stairs. The city worked with the property owner to get a lift installed.
“It created a model, I think, for what we would accept as a city for access,” Binder said. “It was kind of a signature accomplishment for the committee.”
In Benson’s later years, friend Kelly Waterman said she marveled at how Benson would head out into the world unworried about the obstacles she might face.
“She was very smart and had this incredible spirit and fearlessness about her. I mean, if she wanted to do something, she’d just go ahead and do it,” Waterman said, remembering Benson’s jaunts to parades, protests, festivals and Lake Harriet.
Anne Seiler, Benson’s sister, said that growing up, strangers would sometimes look at Benson “like she was a thing” and her family had to learn how to respond to that. Benson grew up to be strong and independent, Seiler said: “She wasn’t afraid to face anything.”
Benson called her friends “temporarily able-bodied,” Waterman said. “She was always kind of reminding us, in a gentle way, that we were no different from her.”
Benson, in her later years, was sometimes weary of teaching everyone around her, Portwood said.
“She didn’t deny or not talk about her disability. She had a lot of pride in it,” Waterman said. “But at the same time, she didn’t want people to see that first when they saw her.”
In that way, she continued to teach.
Benson received many awards, including several WCCO Radio Good Neighbor awards, Portwood said.
In addition to Seiler, Benson is survived by two more sisters and two brothers. She was preceded in death by one brother.
A celebration of Benson’s life will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at Lyndale United Church of Christ in the SpringHouse Ministry Center, 610 W. 28th St., Minneapolis. A potluck gathering will precede the service and a reception will follow.