It’s All In The Genes

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Anna Olson
American Genes

     GOOD NEWS! American Genes, my forthcoming novel, will be released by my publisher, Atmosphere Press, on or about November 15, 2020. The book tells the story of a Minnesota farm girl who had the misfortune of having two seizures. While technically not enough to diagnose her as a person with epilepsy, she was still branded as such by an overly zealous social worker. Having epilepsy in the 1920s and 1930s meant one had inferior genes. In those days, this diagnosis had severe consequences such as involuntary sterilization, or, more frequently, forced institutionalization.

     The idea of inferior genes springs from a belief in what is known as eugenics. People who subscribe to this way of thinking believe some people are superior to others because of their genes. People with good genes are smarter, quicker, healthier, and contribute to their community. On the other hand, eugenics subscribers believed that people with bad genes were a burden to society. Eugenics, as a widely held belief system, began to die out after the horrors of WWII, when everyone saw what Hitler had done with the concept of bad genes.

     BAD NEWS! Eugenics and it’s gene theories didn’t entirely go away. For example, President Donald Trump resurrected the importance of genes when he addressed a crowd in Bemidji, Minnesota, on September 18, 2020, and on more than a dozen other occasions. He resurrected the misbegotten idea that white people have better genes than people of color, or who came from undesirable countries. President Trump implied that native Minnesotans had better genes than those from Somalia. Making those comments to a group of mostly white people whose origin traces back to northern Europe is no accident. Trump was telling the crowd what they wanted to hear, that they were the most desirable Americans. They were the hard-working people who built our country into the powerhouse it is. They had the best genes.

     As often happens, the real world meets the fictional world, and my book American Genes is a case in point. Written long before Mr. Trump made his “gene” comments in Bemidji, it illustrates intolerance for those with bad genes, just like in the old eugenic days. Hearing his words sent a chill down my spine. The history I warn about in my book is already starting to repeat itself. I firmly believe we don’t want to go back to a world where people are measured solely by their genes.

     Watch for the release of my new book American Genes, November 15, 2020! Or it is currently available for presale on Amazon.


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I’m afraid of tyranny. I fear that America is slipping and sliding into an autocratic takeover of our government. It’s happening right here, right now, before our very eyes. Many of our wisest leaders say that we’ve reached the “red zone” danger level.

When I think of tyranny, I recall post-WWII and the observations made by a German pastor, Martin Niemoller, who first supported, then opposed the Nazis. You’ve probably heard or read this before, but it’s worth reading again.

Reverend Niemoller’ reflections on what he failed to do, reads like a poem:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.*

So what can we do? Speak out! Get involved in your local government, vote, write letters, make phone calls, protest, support those who are actively working to resist the suppression of the truth. Help others through acts of caring, welcome strangers, give to food banks. Be kind. Don’t let any form of intolerance take root in your community, because once it starts, it grows like cancer.

Buy Timothy Snyder’s short and to the point book ON TYRANNY.

* This is one of several versions of Pastor Niemoller’s comments, which he never committed to writing.


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      Late last fall I went for a walk on a gloomy, misty, day in Oak Park, Illinois. I noticed the sign above on the side of an old church. The big white banner stood out against the faded limestone.

I’ve written about INCLUSION before, but on that day, I saw it in a different light. Up to that point, I thought of INCLUSION as all things to do with access for people with physical or intellectual impairments. But on that day, I understood it in a wider context. Jesus was radically INCLUSIVE. He was the first to open the door for all to enter heaven. He took the worst sinners, the most physically handicapped, the mentally ill, and invited them in.

One need not be a person of faith to absorb the message on the banner or to understand the lesson Jesus taught. In today’s parlance, we need to be ALL INCLUSIVE, like Jesus. Regardless of gender, sexual orientation, physical abilities or disabilities, or socio-economic status, we should welcome everyone into our world.

There was a fad sometime back where people wore wristbands that had the initials WWJD which stood for What Would Jesus Do? He would be INCLUSIVE. Simple as that. And like the white banner on a gloomy fall day, we should stand out as being proactive. Each day, we can all actively INCLUDE everyone, regardless of how different they might be. It’s as simple as that.



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Isolated In America

At first, it made me angry, then SAD to watch a group of approximately twenty five developmentally disabled people slowly make their way across the crosswalk and into the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong – – please. I wasn’t angry at the people.

Some things in life are relative. What was considered progress forty years ago might be inappropriate today. When evaluating something we are compelled to ask, “compared to what?” Take group shopping as an example. Is it appropriate to take at least twenty-five developmentally disabled adults into the grocery store in one large group?

In 1975, I was Director of Professional Services in a state hospital in Wilmar Minnesota. Back then, I was excited and pleased when group activities like this happened. The mere idea that these individuals were outside one of the big, old, horrible state institutions was considered monumental progress. Since then I’ve seen improvements in the way developmentally disabled people receive the services they need. That’s why I was surprised when I saw the large group in the crosswalk.

In 2017 it is generally accepted that disabled people should not or do not wish to be put on display. If one of them needs to go to the grocery, he or she has the right to be helped by one person. It’s less likely that the public would notice that one of them needed some help. That is the way life should be, assistance with dignity.

To make things worse, in the parking lot, were four green and blue vehicles with the name of the organization that brought these individuals splashed all over the sides. The largest, a mini-bus contained some trite, demeaning phrase about loving the developmentally disabled. Four vehicles screaming out “Hello – – I’m helpless.”

Inside I needed only two things, a prescription and a gift card. I was, however, intent on seeing what was happening with all the developmentally and/or intellectually impaired people. To my dismay, I found fifteen people crowded closely around one, maybe two staff. They reminded me of a swarm of bees as they completely blocked the aisle. The queen bee was giving orders to individual members of the swarm. She asked one woman to pick up a loaf of bread. A man was told to stay with the group. Most of the group wasn’t paying any attention to what was happening.

On down the narrow aisle, the small mass of humanity crept. Other shoppers had to notice this group and like me, they might have felt a twinge of pity on these poor people’s status in life. Pity, a useless emotion if there ever was one, made even worse by the fact it’s not what an impaired person wants or needs. In my opinion, these people have a right to a higher quality of service.

A few aisles over, another group appeared, hovering and swarming near another staff person. This group was smaller, ten people. At this point, I stopped counting or looking for more swarms. I felt disgusted with the agency responsible for this outing. They might as well have dressed all these individuals in red, or in clown outfits; their presence in the store was that obvious.

I can’t blame the staff. They’re simply doing what they are trained to do – – or allowed to do. Every organization has a culture, an atmosphere which sets the tone of how it behaves. It was abundantly clear the culture of this organization didn’t value the privacy and individualized help each of their clients deserve. My only hope is that other services this organization provides are delivered more appropriately.

I plan to share this little essay with the organization whose staff carried out this large group grocery shopping trip. Perhaps there is a logical reason for doing what they did. For example, maybe they were picking up a few items for a spontaneous picnic. Even then, one or two people could have been selected to do the shopping with the help of one staff member. Other staff could have remained in the vehicles for the safety of the others.

I’m still bothered by this incident, SAD to have witnessed it. SAD that the individuals involved had to live it. I hope my words make the agency angry. Angry enough so that they are prompted to be more respectful of the dignity of their clients.

Kirby V. Nielsen


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Isolated In America


Joy is the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires. A synonym, delight.

Mirriam Webster Dictionary

Noreen’s classroom was next to my office. I heard one of her teachers ask her a question: “Do you want to go outside?” The teacher wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Noreen slowly pulled her head to an upright position then let it fall forward. Not quite sure of what she just seen, the teacher asked Noreen: “Was that a yes?”

When she once again pulled her head upright and let it fall forward, the teacher knew something wonderful had happened. I’m not sure if it was a scream or a shout that came from her but it got my attention. Seconds later I realized it was an expression of pure, unadulterated JOY. That day, my staff and I felt an elation that’s better than finding gold. It was the JOY of discovering a person inside the twisted and frozen body of a girl with Cerebral Palsy.

If you’ve read my essay on HATE, you may recall that in 1976, I was the director of a residential facility and school for very severely impaired children. Most of our children had no known abilities. They needed total care and were unable to communicate with the outside world. That is until that one afternoon when Noreen finally gained enough neck strength to give very slow, painful looking nods. For the first time in her life, she answered a question with an affirmative head nod. For the first time, we knew she had cognitive awareness, she understood. What a thrill we all felt.

Noreen came to our facility the same way most of our children arrived -her parents were desperate. She was living in a nursing home and their staff were planning on putting a feeding tube in her stomach. They said that feeding Noreen with a spoon took too much time. Her parents were opposed to the feeding tube and needed to find another place for her to live.

They were right. Imagine the psychological and physical harm of doing this to any teenager. For Noreen, the nursing home placement was nearly fatal. She was the only young person among elderly people. She received no age appropriate stimulation or therapy. No one was willing to take the time to help her eat properly.

At her admissions meeting our nurse described her status as near death. Failure to thrive was the only diagnosis that fit. Her prognosis was poor but we admitted her anyway. Noreen was exactly the type of person we served, someone who was one step away from a large state institution, or death. The day she arrived she was ashen, thin, and her skin was like a blanket over bones.

She had one especially difficult problem, a tongue thrust. If her tongue were stimulated for any reason she pushed it forward and out of her mouth. Unless food or liquids were given to her properly, it came back out. To help her eat, our staff had to push food way back, past the point where it could come out but not so far that she would choke. Eating this way took a long long time and required practice and patience.

At first the staff complained. “It takes so long to feed her we can’t get our other work done.”

“Find a way” I said. “Noreen’s going to eat with everyone else and she’s going to eat the same food (pureed in a food processor) as everyone else. I don’t care how long it takes.” Slowly, painfully, we got her to eat. She put on weight and her color returned.

1976 was our nation’s bicentennial anniversary. For impaired children however, it was year one of their receiving the same rights to an education as a non-impaired child. That in and of itself was a cause for JOY. For Noreen, a “free and appropriate education” as was required by the new Federal law included physical therapy, music therapy, and activities designed to stimulate her senses. She was going to school for the first time. Her Individual Education Plan (IEP) wasn’t addition or spelling, it was to give her the ability to control her neck muscles enough to nod her head to answer questions.

Within a few days of her first communication, we realized Noreen had been learning all along. She knew the alphabet, basic math, words, and more abstract concepts, all without the benefit of formal classwork.

Most people go through life not knowing if what they did really mattered to someone else. I count myself as one of the lucky ones. I know what it feels like to be part of a team that created an environment that allowed someone to become a person who could communicate with the world. That is my JOY.

If Noreen were alive, she would be in her mid-fifties. She would interact with the world via eye movements that control a language board which would either speak for her or create written words on a screen. If she had received the health care, training, and assistance technology she deserved, she could possibly be employed as a project manager -or a newspaper editor.

I doubt it’s possible for us to understand Noreen’s life. To be a thinking, understanding, feeling person trapped inside a body that doesn’t move, would be indescribably frustrating. There was no way for us to understand her JOY when she broke through. But, I’d like to think it was thrilling. I’m thankful I was there to share that JOY with her.


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Isolated In America

I saw her coming at me from the back of the room. Her red face, furrowed brow, and wrinkled eye brows told me she was angry. I was right. She wasted no time on pleasantries before she unloaded on me with a fury like I had never experienced. The way she saw things, I represented all that was wrong in the world of children with special needs. She made it very clear she hated me and the children under my care.

It was 1976 and for those of us in the business of caring for physically and mentally handicapped children, a mountain had just moved. In November of 1975, Gerald Ford had signed PL 94-142, (also known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act*). The law required every child be given a free and appropriate education. This applied to all children, regardless of their degree of impairment. It was awesome and humbling to imagine an education for the children I served who had no known abilities.

That night I had finished a presentation to an advocate group telling them about the services my organization offered. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we provided a comfortable home and professional services for some of the most intellectually and physically handicapped children in Iowa. Our only admissions criteria was that he or she had to be turned away from every other program except a state institution. No child was too handicapped. Put another way, we were a community alternative to the warehousing that took place in state institutions.

During my presentation, I discussed some of the difficulties in determining what “school” meant for severely disabled children. They could not talk, walk, eat independently, or help themselves in any way. What would their classroom look like? This question loomed large over our entire profession. It was a great challenge, but I assured my audience we were up to the task ahead. We considered the new law a great step forward.

I soon learned there was a false belief floating around that providing an education for children like those I served meant taking funding away from less handicapped children. The angry woman was more explicit: “Why do we waste money on children like yours when my two hearing-impaired children can’t get any hearing devices for their classrooms? Those kids of yours are going to die soon anyway; there’s no need to spend money providing them a nice place so they can ‘live like normal people.’ Why bother with education?” She paused momentarily. “Those kids probably shouldn’t have been allowed to live in the first place. They’ll never amount to anything. Why not let them die?”

I was shocked, but my reply was straightforward. “No one appointed me God and until they do, I’ll provide these children the best life and education possible.” The confrontation was over as quickly as it started.

I’d never heard such sentiments before nor have I heard them since. I’m not sure why, but after forty-one years, this memory popped out while I was talking with a writing group about my essay FEAR. Another terrible thought followed. I’ll bet many people still feel this level of hatred toward people they think are getting the money they are entitled to receive. No doubt her kind of hatred for seriously handicapped people lives today. There have always been people who hate others whom they see as diverting money away from the things they want.

Hate was alive and well in America in a past era when handicapped people were considered a tangible threat to the fabric and future of a proper society. While America isolated impaired and handicapped people in crowded institutions, Hitler killed them.

For reasons beyond my understanding, hatred is all in vogue these days. Our country’s leaders evoke it in many of their followers. Give hatred the right voice, and those vulnerable children like I served, the children we’ve fought so hard to make a better life for, could once again become the enemy. Some will see individuals with handicaps as costing society too much. As I write this, essential programs and services are being jeopardized by proposed Medicaid reform. I’m certain that other threats lay ahead and I worry that “let them languish” will be the unspoken mantra of a new generation of haters.


* This law was amended and became known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and signed into law by George HW Bush in October of 1990.

America Must Be Kept American

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Anna Olson

America must be kept American” is indeed a patriotic call for tighter immigration rules. But which president had this as a rallying call for immigration reform?


Southern and eastern Europeans, especially Italians and eastern European Jews were the “undesirables” back in 1924. When Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924 there was a growing concern that the increase in immigration from these areas was much too high. The new law all but eliminated immigration from those parts of the world.

All the buzz back then was that too many of these people would dilute the American blood line. Which is code talk for a desire to keep America northern European white. These racist views on immigration were encouraged by the Eugenics movement which help mold public opinion in a major way. This is the same movement which encouraged institutionalizing and/or sterilizing mentally or physically handicapped people.

The 1924 Immigration Act is yet another example of why restricting immigration based on race or place of birth is ill conceived. I’m sure you recognize how this topic relates to our 2017 immigration debates. Sadly, history repeats itself.


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Isolated In America

On November 9, 2016, I woke up for my usual two am bathroom call and a snack. What was unusual that morning was my curiosity regarding the election results.

I recall watching the TV the night before as talking heads and pundits grew pale and nearly speechless as the election results came in. I admit it was fun watching those who like to tell us what to think and believe being confronted with their limitations and biases. Trump was leading but I was sure the results would change when all was said and done.

I turned on my iPhone and in the bright glow there were two headlines. One was from USA Today, the other from Bloomberg and both announced Trump’s win. I stood in our dark kitchen thinking surely it wasn’t true. My disbelief very quickly turned into anxiety. I had a hot flash followed by a slight turn of my stomach. I felt a tightness in my chest  –the sensation was fear. Why fear? I hadn’t felt fear in years! Why would a presidential election elicit such a visceral response? Maybe the answer could be found in my past.

My first career was working with severely emotionally disturbed children. After obtaining my master’s, I worked with institutionalized developmentally and intellectually impaired children and adults. I often witnessed the detrimental effects institutions had on human beings. At that time, my passion was deinstitutionalizing residents which meant finding them community services.

Now, some thirty plus years later, my new passion is researching and writing about a time in American history when civil rights were denied to nearly every disabled American. They were denied services and opportunities that intellectually and/or physically impaired people take for granted today.

In the early to middle part of the 20th century, forced institutionalization, sterilization, isolation, and even lobotomies were commonplace for hundreds of thousands of Americans. How did these horrible things come to be? The answer was a domino effect. One small abuse of their rights expanded to even more significant abuses. Ultimately, impaired people were believed to be a threat to our society.

Looking back, I wonder if my fear was the same fear Carrie Buck felt when she learned she had lost her Supreme Court case (Buck v Bell). The decision led to her mandatory sterilization. She was labeled as “feebleminded” and incapable of producing offspring that would be fit for society. The date was May 2, 1927. The ruling ushered in a whole new era of compulsory sterilization.

Standing in the early morning darkness, I wondered. Was this the same fear parents of mentally handicapped Germans experienced in 1940? In the 1930s they accepted mandatory sterilization of the genetically “unfit.” Then they accepted forced institutionalization. However, they were horrified to find in 1939 little children were being euthanized. Soon to follow were the teenagers, and finally the adult handicapped. By January 1940 World War II had just broken out and the first mass gassing of adults deemed racially or genetically unfit began at the now infamous 4 Tiergartenstrasse in Berlin. The dominos fell hard.

Perhaps my fear was the same fear a teenage Minnesota girl felt in 1933 as she waited for a judge’s word on whether she would be allowed to stay with the foster parents she loved. The answer was no, instead she was forced to live in a large state institution. I met this woman after she had been institutionalized for over forty years and against all odds, I found her to be normal in every respect. The story of her life became the material for my two novels.

America eventually found its moral compass with the expansion of services and rights for the disabled. Federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and IDEA demonstrate how far we’ve come. Still, there’s much left to do to ensure a disabled person gets the same treatment as their able-bodied neighbors.

I’m still afraid today; writing this essay makes me anxious. I fear for the erosion of disability rights. Like America in the early 20th century and Nazi Germany in the 1930s, will we see a gradual worsening of the quality of life for those who are least able to fight for themselves?

The whole country watched a campaigning Mr. Trump mock a disabled reporter. I believed this was a sign that he thought the reporter was less than an equal. Then came an onslaught of actions that leave me no room for optimism when it comes to the rights of those who need the most help. In ways I don’t totally understand, I have a core belief that the current political climate signals the return of harsh times and fewer services for intellectually or physically impaired citizens. I fear for a return to putting people in institutions.

I pray for some sign I’m worrying about nothing. So far, no luck. I’m still afraid the first domino will soon start to fall.


No inspiration here

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Isolated In America

Once in awhile, a quote stands out that expresses the belief of a whole generation. 

On page 14 of his book Humans of New York Stories, Brandan Stanton, author of the wonderful website Humans of New York captured the essence of INCLUSION. On that page you will find the picture of a pretty young lady in a wheelchair. After growing up in an ISOLATED world she explains what INCLUSION means to her. Here is what she said:

“I want to make life easier for people in China who have disabilities. I know what it’s like, because I lived in a Chinese orphanage until the age of ten, and I wasn’t able to go to school because I couldn’t walk. But that’s just a small part of who I am. I want to be a diplomat, and travel, and do all sorts of things that have nothing to do with being disabled. I don’t want people to pity me. I don’t want to be another ‘poor her.’ I don’t want to inspire people. ‘Inspiration’ is a word that disabled people hear a lot. And it’s a positive word to you. But to us, it’s patronizing. I’m not living a wonderful life for a disabled person. I’m living a wonderful life, period. This morning I got accepted into the London School of Economics. Now hold on, let me put on some lip gloss before you take the photo.”

She said it all. Right!




Lest We Forget: From Isolation to Inclusion

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Background / Isolated In America

I’m a relic of sorts. A throwback to the time when words like retarded and disabled were used professionally. In the late 1960’s I was a direct care giver for seriously emotionally disturbed children. Later, I oversaw professional services in a state hospital unit for the mentally retarded. In the late 1970’s I directed two facilities for severely mentally and physically handicapped children. The labels I used above were accepted at the time.  I was a specialist in programs where the people I was responsible for were excludedisolated from society. Like I said, I’m a relic.

My peers and I knew isolation and exclusion were the wrong approach. We worked hard to change the status quo. We tried to move people from living in institutions to residing in the community. That was called it de-institutionalization. Regardless of where an impaired person lived, we fought to upgrade their living conditions. We called that normalization. In school settings, we pushed and pleaded and forced our children into traditional classroom. That was mainstreaming.

The same work continues today only it’s called inclusion, as in giving impaired people the same rights, opportunities, and choices as any other person. As I read about and study the current state of affairs for emotionally, intellectually, or physically impaired people I am thrilled with some of what I see. It seems like everything has changed for the better. Yet after the thrill wears off, I realize impaired people still live in institutions. This time in small group homes, or individual residences hidden away in towns and cities across America. I believe people are still isolated, some excluded from work or educational opportunities. It makes me realize nothing has changed.

Today, my job is to write about the old days, when society believed some people were deviant and genetically passed along undesirable traits. They feared for a country over-run with idiots, morons, imbeciles and cripples. Their fears were unfounded of course. Yet before their mantra of exclusion had run its course, they damaged hundreds of thousands of Americans. I want current day readers to get a sense of how harsh and demeaning it was to live in an institution with its lack of care and stark horror. Why? To remind us all to push forward, expand the boundaries of civil rights. It is my opinion that accepting the status quo is tantamount to sliding back to the bad old days of exclusion and isolation.

I am currently writing a book called Girl On the Edge. The book will explain the forces that led to people being isolated in institutions. The heroine, Anna Olson, is a pretty young lady -isolated and excluded, eventually institutionalized. I’ve already completed one book, an historical novel, Isolated in America, (any publishers out there?) which describes how bad life was in the large institutions of the past. Here, we follow Anna as she fights to survive in one of the largest institutions in America. Hopefully, these two books will help people understand why we can’t give up the progress we’ve made. We have to push forward for more inclusion, less isolation.

Would it be wise to forget about the holocaust? No one would say yes. The old expression is still true, if we don’t know our past, we are bound to repeat it. Hence I think the little phrase “lest we forget” is applicable when it comes to how we treat our fellow human being who just happens to have a limitation or two. We all need to keep working -don’t go back!