Actor Christopher Reeve is coming to the area this month to receive a prestigious award for his work for the disabled - but some disabled advocates aren't thrilled about it.
A number of local activists have criticized Courage Center in Golden Valley for choosing Reeve, a quadriplegic, as winner of this year's National Courage Award, saying that he sends the wrong message: that money for research is more important than programs to help people cope with disabilities.And they've asked to share the stage with him at the awards dinner Oct. 27, to get their message across.
"His receiving the Courage Award is sucking up and draining the resources for those of us who already have a broken neck, who are quadriplegics, or who are blind," said Rick Cardenas, a community organizer with a St. Paul disabilities group called Advocating Change Together.
"We're being real clear that we aren't pleased about it," said Lolly Lijewski, an advocate with the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living. Reeve has faced similar criticism from activists when he has spoken elsewhere.
Officials at Courage Center, an educational and residential program for the disabled, met with a delegation of critics Tuesday to hear their concerns.
The activists also objected to Reeve's speaking fee, which they cited as $70,000 plus expenses. "It diminishes the award," says Lijewski.
But Kathy Jundt, a spokeswoman for Courage Center, said Reeve - the "Superman" star who was paralyzed from the neck down in a horse-riding accident in 1995 - was chosen because he has raised disability awareness to new heights.
"My sense is that the general public feels that Reeve is a hero, and he's really done wonderful things," she said.
She also said Reeve requested she not disclose the fee he is being paid, but that the $70,000 figure is "very close." She said the fee is being underwritten by several sponsors.
Reeve, who uses a wheelchair as a result of his accident, has attracted national and international attention by appearing at events such as the Democratic National Convention and the Academy Awards. He has called for more funding for medical research, and has stated in interviews that he hopes to walk again.
Reeve's publicist could not be reached for comment.
Among other things, Cardenas and others say that Reeve has used his celebrity status to tout an unrealistic prospect: that disabilities can be cured through research.
"Christopher Reeve, after a few years, will understand," said Cardenas, who - like the actor - is quadriplegic. "His message is one of cure. That is not the message that is going to help many of us who live with disabilities right now."
The problem, he and Lijewski said, is that money going into research will come out of programs that people need now - to learn to live independently, to overcome economic barriers and to get around in the community.
"We think the message that Christopher Reeve is giving," Cardenas said, "is that living in the community is not what we should be striving for. It's sitting around waiting for a cure. I guess I'm not ready to do that."
Jundt says officials at Courage Center recognize the concerns. But, she said, Reeve does far more than talk about research.
"By bringing him here and raising the visibility of disability to the community, it's only going to strengthen resources in the long run," she said.
Reeve will be the headline speaker at this year's awards dinner, which for the first time is being run as a fund-raiser for Courage Center. The dinner is expected to raise about $450,000, she said. Most of the 800 tickets, which range in price from $150 to $25,000 for special sponsors, have already been snapped up. They are expected to sell out.
But Jundt said the center would not invite the critics to share the stage with Reeve.
Reeve is the latest in a long list of prominent disabled people who have been honored by the center's National Courage Award. Previous winners include physicist Stephen Hawking, violinist Itzhak Perlman, journalists Bree Walker and John Hockenberry, and Dr. I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet University.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)