Episode 3: Cass Irvin: Creating a stir her entire life

1 year ago

Cass Irvin was disabled by polio when she was nine years old and is a wheelchair user. In her thirties she began serving on local and state boards of disability organizations and has been involved with civil rights and arts organizations most of her life.

She was a co-founder of The Disability Rag magazine and contributing editor from 1984-92. She credits The Rag, a magazine that covers the disability rights movement from a civil rights perspective, for being a fertile and welcoming place where disability writers could grow.

Cass Irvin has been an instructor of Disability History & Culture for the Jefferson County Public Schools. She directed Access to the Arts, Inc., an arts and disability advocacy organization in Louisville, KY. and she was the first disability activist inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

“I consider myself a teacher and a storyteller,” she says. Her memoir, Home Bound, was published by Temple University Press in 2004 and tells the story of her growth as an activist and writer.

Thanks to Chris Ankin for use of his song, “Change.”

The book "A Celebration of Family: Stories of Parents with Disabilities." is available from Amazon here.

Send comments and questions to [email protected]

Demand and Disrupt is sponsored by the Advocado Press and the Center For Accessible Living.

Thanks to Steve Moore for the transcription which you can find in the show notes below when they become available.


Kimberly Parsley 0:04

Welcome to Demand and Disrupt disability podcast.  Here, we will learn to advocate for ourselves and each other. This podcast is supported with funds from the Avocado Press, based in Louisville, Kentucky.

Robotic Voice 0:18

Cass Irvin was disabled by polio when she was nine years old and is a wheelchair user.  In her 30s, she began serving on local and state boards of disability organizations. She was a co-founder of The Disability Rag magazine, which covered the disability rights movement from a civil rights perspective. She was an instructor of disability history and culture for the Jefferson County Public Schools. She directed Access to The Arts, Inc., an arts and disability advocacy organization in Louisville, Kentucky. She was the first disability activist inducted into The Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame. Her memoir, Homebound, was published by Temple University Press in 2004.  Cass Irvin is a legend in the disability community.

Kimberly Parsley 0:58

Hello and welcome, Cass Irvin. It is wonderful to have you with us.

Cass Irvin 1:03

Thank you.  Glad to be here.

Kimberly Parsley 1:05

Well, thank you for joining us. I am in awe of your writing and your work. You're a real legend in the disability community in Kentucky and further afield.  So, can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in disability advocacy?

Cass Irvin 1:21

Probably, I got involved with disability advocacy, because I had a problem with an agency that told me that I was not college material and, thus, they weren't going to pay for my college education. 

Kimberly Parsley


Cass Irvin

And, at the time, I thought, “Well, I guess that…” – there was the rehab department, Kentucky Department for Rehab in Kentucky. It sounded okay to me, because, you know, disabled people can't do what everybody else does. But, I ran into a woman who was disabled who told me that, because of certain laws, it was not really, I mean, and because of my disability, they really couldn't reject me and say that I wasn't qualified to go to college, especially since/because my family went to college, my parents put me through college my first year, anyway. So, when I went back to the rehab department and said, “Well, I've been going to college and it seems like I'm handling it okay and you guys need to pay for me.”  Now, believe me, I was scared to death! But I just knew that sometimes when things don't seem right, you should try to complain about them. And they sent somebody from Frankfort to Louisville to interview me to make sure that the person who said I could not qualify for rehab educate – I mean, college education paid through the rehab department – that I should take special tests just to prove that I could.  And I did and I passed.  It was a lot of rigmarole, just because somebody made a bad decision.

Kimberly Parsley 3:06

It's interesting how little things have changed.

Cass Irvin 3:10

No, no, it's not. I mean, I wish it wasn't. But, you know, things: it's just always hard for people to be able to stand up for themselves.  You know, whatever group of people that they are.  When I was little, things weren't accessible and I was pretty much of a shut in. And a lady that we knew who worked for my mom had a friend who had a daughter and they decided that I needed to get out and this young lady could go places with me. And, you know, that would be good for me and good for her and she could earn a little money.  And we get in a yellow cab and, strangely enough, a little kid in a wheelchair could get in the back of a yellow cab, wheelchair and all. And we went downtown to a theater to watch a movie. It was like a big deal. She handled me in the chair by herself. I mean, it was just a manual chair. And, so, we decided we’d go to see a movie and we went. Gee, I don't know how to explain this, because people who don't know what movie theaters were like in the old days downtown.  But, you go up to the window and, you know, ask about the times of the movie and how much.  And we did that.  She could reach the window, because she wasn't in a wheelchair. So, she went to the window and she said, you know, ‘When are the movies playing?  How long?’ because we only had so much time to be downtown. And the guy told her how long the movie was, when it started. And then then she said, ‘How much?’ and he told her how much.  And then she said, ‘I’d like two tickets, please.’ And he said, ‘I can't let you in.‘ And I was really embarrassed, because I thought, “Gosh, I should remember that.”  When I went to theater with Mommy and Daddy, you know, I had to sit in the back of the theater. And, you know, my chair was a fire hazard, so Daddy put me in a seat. But, this young woman couldn't do that.  But, I was, so I was very embarrassed that I didn't think about this. And I said, “I'm sorry, I should have known better.”  And he said, you know, I realized I can't go in and he said, ‘No, it's not you, it's her.’ And he pointed to my friend and I realized, “Oh,” you know, “she's black.”  And it really hurt.  I mean, I've felt real pain, like somebody had said something really bad to me and I have been, I've had that kind of feeling before when someone would say something like that to me as a disabled person.  And I just, you know, I was furious!  I thought, “I'm gonna go home, I'm going to tell my daddy.  My daddy knows people, he's gonna fuss at them. We're gonna write to the newspaper.  We'll,” you know, “We'll go create a stir.”  And, of course, I came home and found out that was going to do me no good, because this was in the 50s and black people couldn't go into movie theaters. She could walk, I couldn't walk; but, I could go in and she couldn’t: that didn't make any sense to me. And, when we feel that for somebody else, it's easier to fight. It made me realize it's easier to fight for other people than to fight for yourself.

Kimberly Parsley 6:35

Well, I think it's maybe cliche for a blind person to quote Helen Keller, but she famously said, “Until all of us are free, none of us are free.”  And, yes, I think that is so, so true. And I think rights for many groups, disabled included, have really been threatened in the last bit. And, I mean, there are probably several reasons for that and, probably, some we don't even understand.  But, what, what is your, what do you think about that? What do you think about the state of civil rights and civil liberties, in general?  But, in disability rights, in particular?  What do you think about the state of disability rights and disability justice right now?

Cass Irvin 7:19

Probably, that's a better question to ask David and people that are in the fray right now, because I'm really not, and I'm not optimistic. But, that maybe is because I don't know what everybody else is doing. And that's kind of been my choice, because in the last couple of years, thanks to COVID. I mean, I'd already kind of semi-retired and didn't run around as much. And then COVID came and, it was like, “Oh, well! I'm not going out now!” I mean, I don't, I'm sorry, I don't want to get sick because somebody else is not being careful. 

Kimberly Parsley


Cass Irvin

And so, um, so I really can't comment on what I think it is, except for the fact that, I think in many ways, because of the gay rights movement and, just, many more groups of people are realizing they have rights and they need to fight for them. And I think, because of that, you know, we're more conscious of it. I don't know if that means we're kind of bored with it by now or see too much of it, but I just want things to happen, so people realize they can make change even if it's not a huge change. It's kind of hard to fight the big fights. But, sometimes it's not too hard just to get to a meeting/to show up, so somebody says, ‘Oh, some of those people are here. This issue must be interest to those people, too.’

Kimberly Parsley 8:53

So, you said before we started recording that housing and personal care attendants were the issues that were closest to your heart. Do you want to talk about that?

Cass Irvin 9:05

Well, I've been lucky enough to have never lived in an institution. I went to Warm Springs, Georgia, for rehabilitation and that was semi-institution.  But, because it was a rehab facility, but it was more like a campus. And that's where I learned a lot about disability/existing in disability in the world. 

Kimberly Parsley 9:30

Warm Springs, Georgia: famously where President Roosevelt went.

Cass Irvin 9:36

Yes, right. Yeah. And he's one of my heroes. And, you know, at Warm Springs, you learn how to live in the world with, you know, with a disability.  And it doesn't mean you're segregated.  And you learn how to make things accessible. And I was lucky enough that my parents had a house that was, I mean, once we had ramps it was pretty accessible on the first floor.  I mean, I can just get into every room in the house.  I needed a wheelchair, didn't have to worry about steps when we once we got ramps. At a certain point in my life, I had a motorized wheelchair so I could get around more.  This is my parents’ house, but I live in it. Now that they're no longer here and for many years, I've lived in it with personal assistants. And I think it may be in the something I sent you: the most important thing is home to people. And this is my home. And when Daddy was ill and in an institution – a hospital – he wanted to only go home. And, so, home is really important.  And a nursing home is my other choice. So, you know, I'm not choosing a nursing home as long as I have that choice.

Kimberly Parsley 10:55

Yeah. I, I had a spinal cord operation in 2016 that left me, just, I had to relearn everything. I had to relearn how to walk, how to feed myself, how to groom myself, get dressed, everything. And I still haven't regained the use in my left hand. And I was in a rehabilitation facility for a month and all I could think about everyday was getting home. I had two, two small children at the time. Fortunately, my mother is around and very active with our family.  And, so, she had my kids, she was taking care of the kids. And Michael, my husband, was, he was down at the hospital with me; this is called Stallworth and it's affiliated with Vanderbilt and that, it was awesome and they did so much for me. But, it was not home. And I wanted to be home so much with, with my kids and my family. So, yeah, you're absolutely right. And can you talk a little bit about the struggle that housing is for disability, for disabled people?

Cass Irvin 12:04

You know, housing, if you're a person with a disability and you have money, you can handle it, like anything.  But, if you're a disabled person that doesn't have a lot of money or someone who's older and things get more and more difficult, they want to put you in a nursing home. And there's all kinds of housing between here and a nursing home.  And a nursing home, one of the things disabled people have always exclaimed or shouted is, ‘Nursing homes are way more expensive than a personal home!’ That's just normal. And people should be able to get many services in their own home. And, if they can, then whether you're my dad living on Cumberland Lake in his cottage all by himself or me here in the city, when you need personal assistance, if you can have it in your home, you can still live there. And I think that's the way most people want to go.  Older people, we have so many friends, family whose older relatives have had to all of a sudden move somewhere else.  And they become totally different people, because they're not in their home. And I think that's different. But, I also think, like I said, once you start talking about categories of people, then you try to think of the most convenient, easy way to take care of them and that's why you have nursing homes.

Kimberly Parsley 13:34

Thanks, Cass Irvin, for joining us and for your lifetime of service to people with disabilities. Thanks to Chris Ankin for music.  Thanks to Joe Hodge for technical support. If you have questions or comments, send them to [email protected].  If you liked the podcast, please consider leaving a review. If you really liked the podcast, go ahead and subscribe and tell others about us. Until next time, thanks for listening!

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Kimberly Parsley