Joe Roling remembered

As summer closes, I can’t help but think about my friend, Joe Roling. Joe died this past August, which I believe was his favorite month because it is the warmest. Like August, Joe’s personality was warm; he was always friendly. We lived in the same building for 20 years. He ruled one side of the yard; I ruled the other. He was not too keen on my native plant restoration, but we both liked the sugar maples on his side of the yard. Joe saw the moons of Jupiter with binoculars for the first time in August 1998. With his interest in planets growing, it wasn’t long before he rigged a chicken wire antenna up to his ham radio so we could listen to the electrical storms on Jupiter. Like many who were part of the disabled baby boom in Rockford, Joe was forced to attend Freeman Grade School for crippled children. Joe was three or four years ahead of me and had a different teacher. One thing we shared, that was inescapable though, was having the same principal at Freeman. Not many students liked him. Some of them said that the Freeman principal was just trying to show us what the real world would be like for the disabled. Joe firmly believed that the attitude of Freeman’s principal plus the poor attitudes of others toward the disabled helped sow the seeds of discontent, spawning Rockford’s disability rights movement years later. Joe Roling and dozens of others became members of Rockford’s chapter of the Coalition for Citizens With Disabilities in Illinois in the early ’80s. Joe’s compassion for others made him a champion for the underdogs with disabilities, that is, those with disabilities with less money and from less prominent families. Furthermore, Joe had always tried to bridge the gap between the adults and young adults who had just joined the ranks of the disabled via accident or disease with those who were born disabled. Sometimes, those who became disabled later in life tend to assume an attitude of feeling superior to those born with disabilities. Joe, who was born with spina bifida, wanted everyone with one or more disabilities to have all their rights and freedoms. The ’90s welcomed a new political power for the disabled in the world. It is called People First. This international organization soon opened an office in Springfield. Joe Roling and others were quick to start a local chapter. People First was more inclusive than other disability rights organizations and did not give lower status to those with closed head injuries, learning disabilities, or those with emotional disabilities. Joe became local chapter president quickly and state president in just a few years. Joe’s work in the arts also helped bring about disability awareness. He co-starred in a long series of comedy videos with me. Joe’s sense of comedy was tremendous, and he was the consummate disabled straight man. He set himself up and complemented my wacky brand of comedy. Other videos were being planned, but life is short. We’re going to miss you, Joe. We know you’re up there making things more accessible in God’s realm. Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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