Gloria Steinbring, a charismatic and fiery leader of Minnesota’s disability rights movement for four decades, died last month in Minneapolis. She was 71.
Born with a developmental disability on the Iron Range, Steinbring endured years of abuse at institutions before becoming a leader in early campaigns to fight the isolation and social stigma associated with disabilities. She was a founder of Advocating Change Together (ACT), a self-advocacy organization that has grown to have six chapters across the state.
In a particularly powerful episode in the early 1980s, Steinbring testified at the Legislature against the use of punitive restraints, solitary confinement and food deprivation at institutions housing people with disabilities. She moved lawmakers by recounting, in excruciating detail, her own experiences at Portland Residence, a large Minneapolis group home, where she was once locked in a closet for hours without food, water or access to a toilet. She was also put on a near-starvation diet, returning home one year weighing just 60 pounds. “They used me as a guinea pig,” Steinbring said in a documentary. “I almost died.”
Her testimony and grass roots organizing led to the creation of state rules limiting the use of restraints and seclusion at such facilities.
Born in Hibbing with rickets, a severe vitamin D deficiency, Steinbring had bones that were abnormally thin and weak, forcing her to wear special high-top shoes for much of her childhood. Neighborhood boys called her “stupid” and pelted her with snowballs packed with rocks, recalled her sister, Norma Toman.
After high school, Steinbring spent 11 years in a sheltered workshop for people with disabilities, performing menial tasks like placing thermostats in plastic bags for 88 cents an hour. When the workshop denied her request for a raise, Steinbring quit and told the managers to “go to hell” as she walked out, she later recounted.
While at the workshop, Steinbring fell in love with another worker, Dean Steinbring, from International Falls, who also had a disability. The two married in a small ceremony kept secret from their caretakers, for fear they might intervene and try to stop the marriage, Toman said.
Steinbring’s brash wit, youthful spirit, and high-pitched voice became familiar to many in Minnesota’s burgeoning disability rights movement. She appealed to a new generation of advocates who were unsatisfied with vague promises of incremental reform and staunchly opposed the custodial model of care for people with disabilities.
“Gloria was a person who just absolutely refused to be victimized,” said Mary Kay Kennedy, executive director of ACT.
After helping to form ACT, Steinbring turned her attention to organizing workers at sheltered workshops. She would show up on payday with bags of peanuts. “As workers left, she would hand them bags and say, ‘This is what you’re working for — peanuts!’ ” recalled Mel Duncan, a fellow advocate and longtime friend.
In the late 1990s, Steinbring became a leader of an ambitious project to identify and mark the graves of 13,000 Minnesotans who lived and died in state mental hospitals and were buried anonymously. Many of the graves had no names, just patient numbers chiseled on headstones the size of coffee cans. The project, known as “Remembering with Dignity,” has put names and dates on more than 8,500 graves at cemeteries from Faribault to Cambridge.
Even in her final years, as she struggled with chronic breathing difficulties, Steinbring continued her advocacy work. In 2012, she served on a committee to modernize the state’s rules on restraint and seclusion practices in state-licensed facilities.