Evelyne Villines

By Terrence Nowlin   

In 1947, a young Evelyne Villines interviewed for a summer job at a hotel. The previous eight summers, a childhood bout of polio relegated her to an institution 250 miles from her Iowa home. It was a children’s hospital so uncaring the young patients were punished for crying, she said. She wanted that summer to be different, but the hotel manager did not see her potential.

“He gets up from his desk and comes around to the side and puts his hand on my head and he said ‘So you want a job?’ And I said ‘Yes, I do. I can type 80 words a minute.’ And I [was] telling him all the things I could do. He said ‘You go home. Someone will always care for you,’” she said. “That was the philosophy then.”

Villines did not go home to be cared for. Rather, that moment became a starting line in her marathon of activism that would advance the role of people with disabilities in American society. 

Her work was cut out for her. It would be 43 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, and accessibility and inclusion were foreign concepts. Even commonplace language pertaining to disability was demeaning. 

The Wichita Eagle & Beacon profiled Villines in 1970 when she served as the executive secretary of the Iowa Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. The article referenced a title her 9-year-old son had used to sum up his mother’s work: “professional cripple.” Villines said that it was an apt description using accepted vocabulary of the era.

“That was about the time that we started our efforts to clean up the language and to give people with disabilities a role of dignity within our community and within the workplace,” she said.

Much of her efforts focused on disability in the workplace. SourceAmerica was known as the National Industries for the Severely Handicapped when Goodwill Industries International CEO Dean Phillips recommended Villines join the board. Her 20-year tenure on the NISH board started before the first contract and spanned the time the organization grew to be one of the largest employers of people with disabilities in the country.

“We have so many people waiting to grow and waiting to be part of society,” she said. “I think that SourceAmerica has highlighted the abilities of people who are just waiting to go work, and that they have made their own statement. There are so many people who have never witnessed that and never had that opportunity.”

In 1994 and again in 1999, President Bill Clinton appointed Villines to the Committee for Purchase from People Who are Blind or Severely Disabled, now known as the U.S. AbilityOne Commission. SourceAmerica serves as a central nonprofit agency for that program. 

In addition to her role with AbilityOne and at SourceAmerica, which continues today in a consultant capacity, she held her position at the Iowa’s Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped from 1965 to 1975, and director positions at the Iowa Lutheran Hospital in Des Moines and at Easter Seals Iowa. 

Villines continues to be a spokeswoman for people with disabilities. Since 1980, she has delivered speeches in 50 states and two territories, and as far abroad as Italy.

“I am proud I have been given the opportunity to climb in the disability field—having this opportunity of speaking in every state and knowing all of the wonderful people who are making a difference in people’s lives,” she said.

Villines has been honored for her work as a person with a disability and as a woman. She is a 1986 inductee to the National Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities and a 1994 inductee into the Iowa Women’s Hall of fame. Metro Women’s Network of Greater Des Moines named her Woman of the Year in 2000. One of SourceAmerica’s most prestigious annual employee awards bears her name.

Of her many accomplishments over a long career, Villines said she’s most proud of giving others the ability to have meaning in their work.

“I think a lot of people go to work every day and never touch another person’s life,” she said. “When someone from SourceAmerica goes to work, they’re not only touching a person’s life, but they’re making a difference. Having a role in making that happen is what I’m most proud of.”

The marathon of disability activism continues, and while much has changed, modern-day disability advocacy has a shared vision with advocates of years past, she said. In the same article from 47 years ago that labeled her a “professional cripple,” Villines focused on dignity.

“My own definition of rehabilitation is to ‘restore with dignity,’ and there is dignity in work, in gainful employment, in feeling needed,” she said.