In the 1990s, many people with disabilities were dying in nursing homes. Roughly 4,000 names were on the waiting list for state-funded home health care, so Kathleen Kleinmann and some like-minded fellow activists made it their mission to get officials in Harrisburg to direct more funds for that purpose.
“They didn’t want to hear it at first, but we took over (Gov. Tom) Ridge’s office, and we camped out in front of the Capitol for two weeks, and a bunch of people got arrested,” Kleinmann said. But in the end, Ridge raised the appropriation in a single budget cycle enough to get everyone off the waiting list.
It’s one of a number of victories Kleinmann, 69, has scored in her decades-long career as an advocate for the rights of those with disabilities.
She’s also been part of the independent living movement, whose tenet that people living with disabilities has slowly moved from the fringes of public opinion closer to mainstream consensus in the last few decades.
Kleinmann is retiring as CEO of Transitional Paths to Independent Living (TRPIL), the nonprofit she founded in 1990, as she gets ready to move to Rockville, Md., where her daughter, Melanie, lives. A party will be held in her honor Sunday at the Hilton Garden Inn at Southpointe.
Kleinmann also has a son, Daniel. She’s expecting her third grandchild soon.
She said she thinks of leaving her current role as a “graduation.” She doesn’t have another job lined up, but she said she’s hoping to continue her involvement in politics in some way: “I’ve got a plan, but I haven’t let anybody down there know of my plan.”
Kleinmann has non-progressive muscular dystrophy, grew up in Wilmerding, a little borough in Allegheny County’s Turtle Creek Valley, in a family of 11 children. As a child she used crutches and braces, and schools at the time had no obligation to take children with disabilities.
She did get an education, starting with when the local school sent a teacher to work with her at home for an hour each day.
“Someone out there must have been going to bat for me from time to time, but I didn’t always know who it was,” she said.
That lasted three years before she was sent to a school for children with disabilities for another a few more years. She said it finally took a teacher who “threw a fit” and got himself fired so that she and several other students could be sent to the local public school when she was 12.
She described it as an early lesson that there were “pioneers” who were willing to stand up against others’ view of what was normal.
“I think that was the seeds” of her activism, she said.
She went on to be part of East Allegheny High School’s first graduating class, doing so well that she never had to pay tuition during her undergraduate studies at Penn State University and while pursuing master’s degrees from Florida State and the University of Pittsburgh.
The schooling fueled a career that took her from the New Jersey Medicaid program in 1979 and back to her home region, where she began working for the Three Rivers Center for Independent Living, a now-closed nonprofit service provider for people with disabilities, in 1982, while the Americans With Disabilities Act was still “just a pipe dream.”
“I didn’t realize that I was helping to lay the groundwork and that I was joining an army that would make that happen.”
During the ensuing career, she’d also be arrested 16 times during nonviolent protests, including during the one that helped get more money for home care. TRPIL was also part of the fight in the 1990s to get transportation for those with disabilities in rural areas.
The next big push is in the area of assistive technology – namely, getting insurers to cover more of it – she predicted.
“It’s been an exciting time to live and work,” Kleinmann said.
Kleinmann’s retirement event will be held at the Hilton Garden Inn from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. Those who wish to attend should call 724-223-5115.