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Voices of Disability Pride: 'Don't let the fear stop you,' shares Michael Rogers

Frank Cammarata, Erie County's ADA Coordinator and Director of the County's Office for People with Disabilities and Michael Rogers, Western Region Coordinator for the Self-Advocacy Association of New York talk with each other at the ADA anniversary press conference
Emyle Watkins
Frank Cammarata, Erie County's ADA Coordinator and Director of the County's Office for People with Disabilities (Left) and Mike Rogers, Western Region Coordinator for the Self-Advocacy Association of New York (Right) talk with each other at the ADA anniversary press conference.

This week, we share the first installment of a new series of profiles of leaders in the disability community, called “Voices of Disability Pride.” Each profile is a chance to hear about someone’s personal advocacy journey, the skills that helped them succeed and what advice they have for people new to the disability community. This week we’re highlighting Michael Rogers, a prominent self-advocate in Buffalo and Regional Organizer for the Self Advocacy Association of New York State.

PLAIN LANGUAGE DESCRIPTION: In this conversation, Emyle Watkins and Michael Rogers discuss Michael's journey into disability advocacy, starting from his realization as a child that people with disabilities are often overlooked. Michael talks about his involvement in the self-advocacy movement and his work with organizations like ARISE Western New York and the Board of Visitors for Western New York. He emphasizes the importance of people with disabilities being empowered to speak up for their rights and shares his advice for young advocates. Michael also reflects on societal attitudes towards disability.

Full Interview with Michael Rogers for Voices of Disability Pride


Emyle Watkins: Well, Mike, it's great to talk with you again.

Michael Rogers: You too, Emyle, always.

Emyle Watkins: I've met you through a lot of different disability community events and through your advocacy work, but I know one thing that we both have in common is that we're both Canisius graduates.

Michael Rogers: Yeah, in doing some research on you, because I researched the other way, I noticed that. I noticed that, yeah, a fellow alumni.

Emyle Watkins: Yeah, go Griffs. I know for me, my interest in disability and journalism came from Canisius. I'm wondering, is university when your journey of advocacy work began, or did it come after that? Tell me where it all began.

Michael Rogers: It's very interesting. If I were to say how I became a self-advocate, I wouldn't say any of that. I would say that when I was about 10 years old, I was sitting out in front of my house noticing that a lot of the people that were around in my neighborhood saw me, but they didn't really see me. And I said, "Something's wrong and somebody's got to fix this." Now, I knew nothing about the self-advocacy movement. I knew nothing about disability rights, but I thought it was wrong that there seemed to be an invisible barrier between the ableist world and the people with disabilities. And I said, "I'm going to find a way to fix that because I think we all live on earth and we should all interact." That was in the '80s.

Emyle Watkins: So, 40 years later, still doing that work.

Michael Rogers: Yes, but I'm doing it officially. I never thought of myself as an advocate or anything before I got involved with the Self Advocacy Association. I took an AmeriCorps project role in telling your own story, speaking up with a bunch of people, including Gwen [Squire]. That's when I found out that that was an actual movement, that there were people before you that fought for you to get what you have now.

I love social justice, social activism, because to change something, you actually have to do something to change something. Change does not come by you just sitting there doing nothing. Energy takes movement, activeness. You can't just sit there and say, "I hope one day this will change." Well, maybe it will, but are you going to be a part of that change?

Emyle Watkins: For people who aren't familiar, what is the self-advocacy movement?

Michael Rogers: The self-advocacy movement to me is the idea of knowing something isn't right, that you don't have a voice, and then realizing that you do because so many times, so many things as a person with a disability, you say to yourself, "Oh, I wish I would've known that sooner," or "I wish that would've been told to me sooner and I would've done that." So I want to always be that person to let people know that things are possible.

Look at what people have done in the past, people like Judy Heumann and those people in the '60s going, "We need to be able to get on buses. We need to be able to go to school. You can't not have us get an education." And taking that energy and building upon that, always building upon that, moving into the able-bodied world saying, "We're here. We want universal design so that we can all use this, so I'm not over here and you're over there, that we are together."

Emyle Watkins: You've definitely done a lot over the past few years, and you have held a lot of different positions and roles, many of them leading or advising groups. I'm interested to hear more about your work with ARISE and the Board of Visitors for Western New York.

Michael Rogers: Sure. ARISE, it was interesting because ARISE came out of the work that a bunch of us had been doing with the Voice Buffalo. Me and my friend Marie Malinowski were like, "Okay, let's do some work on transportation." Before ARISE, we were working on transportation and things of that nature. Then as we got involved with Voice Buffalo, we learned methods of gathering people together and getting them motivated to act.

ARISE Western New York came out of the idea that the [NYS] Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) should be accessible to people with developmental disabilities. So we switched the name. We started getting involved in community activism, and eventually we did end up getting a satellite office for the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities in Buffalo on Broadway Street, so that we can get outreach to people and so that the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities will be accessible to people with disabilities, and they can come and find out information.

Emyle Watkins: Because that office was previously, or still is in a way, on East and West Road in West Seneca, right?

Michael Rogers: Yes, and transportation-wise, there is no public transportation that gets out there. So for someone with that need to work or volunteer out there, it's just not possible.

Emyle Watkins: And that Broadway location has kind of become a hub for a lot of different disability organizations, right?

Michael Rogers: Yeah, yeah, a lot of different disability. You have Parent Network, you have EPIC, just to name a couple of, I wouldn't say disability organizations, but community organizations that we can then work together on certain things because it's not all just about disability all the time. There are many affected areas in Western New York, us being an emerging but poor city. There's a lot of different angles to attack things and people that don't know about disability through their culture or whatever. It's not always given it a positive light.

Emyle Watkins: Yeah, absolutely. The Board of Visitors of Western New York, I didn't realize that you did that work, but tell me a little bit about that.

Michael Rogers: Sure. The Board of Visitors, to make a long story short, it was developed by parents and stakeholders when the institutions were still around, West Seneca, you know, the Developmental Center was in full swing, so that there was a little bit of a watchdog group. What we do is we oversee state services like people that get services through OPWDD, state group homes, state day habs [day habilitation]. We make sure that everything's going well. We have regular meetings, and we can actually go in and visit the houses anytime that we want. We have that ability, being members of the board, to go in and see and make sure that things are being done well for people that are getting services because there should be somebody overseeing stuff and making sure that people aren't getting abused or neglected and really getting a chance to live the life that they should be wanting to live.

Emyle Watkins: Well, it sounds like a lot of your advocacy work has really centered around making sure that people with disabilities are in control of their own lives.

Michael Rogers: Yeah. I think a lot of the work I do for my day job, as I call it, is a lot of "systems work," making sure that people know what services they have, know what's possible, and to make that system better, have those interactive meetings, a seat at the table. But dare I say that there's more than systems. There's society, there's getting together with people on the weekend. There's learning about people that are different than you, maybe culturally, spiritually, getting out there and becoming something more than just what a system says you can be.

Emyle Watkins: Absolutely.

Emyle Watkins: I'm asking everyone for this series, if you could give advice to a younger you or another person with a disability just getting started on their own journey of self-advocacy, what would you tell them?

Michael Rogers: Don't let the fear stop you. Achieve early. A lot of people in the able-bodied world will tell you to wait. "Wait, wait until this happens. Wait until that happened." Most of the time, I think it's because they're afraid that if something doesn't go right for you, you will fall apart. I say to you, do things early. Do things when you're younger. Don't wait to achieve those things because although those people are well-meaning, I'm not immortal. I don't carry a sword, and I'm not from the Highlands of Scotland, although I am Scottish I found out through genetic testing. You need to achieve while you're younger. I'm not being ageist here. I'm just saying reality. The earlier you get started at something, the better it is.

Could you fail? Sure. But most successful people fail over and over again. They don't give up, and they don't wait 500 years to get something done. So my advice would be try things out, explore, achieve things early, and you'll gain confidence in yourself so that when those naysayers come to the door, you can say, "No, look at what I've done. Look at what I have achieved. Things that you don't think I'll achieve, I've already achieved. So what do you have to say about that?"

Emyle Watkins: I think it's interesting the point you bring up that some people view people with disabilities and people like us as really fragile. I guess I'm wondering, what do you wish non-disabled people understood about our community?

Michael Rogers: I'm going to say this, and it's going to sound revolutionary to some. We are not as different as you think we are. The idea that people with disabilities, we have totally different thoughts and different ways, that we're sent from on high with glowing halos around us, no, we experience life just like you do. You just have to realize that. I think our biases that people have, "Oh, it must be terrible being disabled." The fact that you are saying that is the problem, not our disability, but the fact that people think those thoughts give us impediments that we really shouldn't have.

Emyle Watkins: Absolutely. And as a final question, I'm wondering, who do you look up to or admire in our community?

Michael Rogers: Oh, I look up to a lot of people. I look up to my colleagues like BJ Stasio, who works for the state, Sam Mattle, who runs the Center for Self-Advocacy. I look up to people that have been there before me. Chester Finn, I don't know if you've heard about Chester. Many, many people that I've learned from, that I've grown with the people, the Ed Roberts, Judy Heumann, I mentioned before, people that really went out on a limb, who had none of those things but created something out of nothing with guts. They had guts. They said, "No, you're not going to do that to me. I'm going to go to school. I'm going to be a teacher. I'm going to do those things." And everybody said, "No, that's not going to work," because it was inconvenient for them.

The message that I want to share is that people will say things are not going to work often because it's inconvenient for them. "Oh, you don't need to go to school," because then we have to do something to change ourselves. That's the big message about society is we are not that inconvenient if we work together to make those changes like universal design support and more support in school and housing. If we had all those things, we wouldn't need to worry about all these little things that we call problems.

Emyle Watkins: Well, thank you so much, Mike. This has been wonderful chatting with you.

Michael Rogers: Thank you as always, as always.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.