Author Celebrates 'Maine Women at the Millenium'
Penny Plourde: Much-Admired Champion for Women and the Disabled
Penny PlourdeAugusta, Maine
"I couldn't run, couldn't jump, couldn't play with kids in the traditional way, so the way I made it work for me was through the power of language-through becoming more outward within. I am a great extrovert … I love sharing because it empowers me … It's good for my ego, and in some way that may be the message."
Penny is so strong-minded and strong-willed and has such a compelling personality that you may forget that she was a spina bifida baby. Although she uses a wheelchair, she seems to live life pretty much on her own terms. She drives a hand-operated van, lives by herself, travels by air when the occasion demands, and calls on other people with disabilities to give them support. She seems happiest when empowering others to do more.
How did Penny gain the strength to overcome her physical handicap and find the inner confidence to act in ways that make others treat her as they would anyone? Raised primarily in Fort Kent, the oldest of three daughters, she learned to live not only with her disability and the lack of available care locally. She had endured more than thirty operations by the time she was twelve. With her parents' support, Penny told the doctors there would be no more operations, that they had made all the improvements they were going to make. She decided that the rest had to come from her; she would use leg braces and crutches, or a wheelchair.
This act of independence was the start of her resolution to live her own life as much as possible. Her school told her she couldn't attend because she represented a risk. She told the school there was nothing wrong with her intellect. They offered tutoring. Instead, she went to Mount Mercy Academy, a Catholic boarding school in Waterville, and graduated in 1972. Back at home she enrolled in the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
Before leaving college, Penny became a volunteer in the 1978 gubernatorial campaign. She found that she liked planting the seed and letting it grow, and before long she had a full-time paid position. Her candidate won. Penny moved to Augusta and worked for a few years for the Department of Labor before [becoming] Coordinator of Civil Rights in the Department of Transportation. This [became] her platform to help others and make things happen. This is what allowed her to become a strong, independent voice and force — first, to help women and minorities gain economic parity in employment for state contracts; second, to bring the department into the 21st century with respect to services and employment for people with disabilities. Where do you put a streetlight with an audible signal? How do you make sure that the ferries, buses, and other mass transit facilities are accessible to those with disabilities? Penny found her job took much more than words-it took design and layout, and educating communities by her example of what it's like to have a disability in this century.
Most of us have little comprehension of what Penny Plourde has been through. Did the fact that she suffered and survived set the stage for becoming a strong, independent woman? Or was it there from the beginning? Although she grew up among strong women, including her mother, and had her father's full support, she is living proof of the power of the human spirit to achieve a full life against many obstacles.
She says she never wants to be an enabler. "I always want others to be strong enough to fight." Although the disabled may find resources here or there, the first, she points out, is finding things they can do for themselves to take control of their lives. "That's what I do and that's my life."
Excerpted from Finding Their Own Voices: Maine Women at the Millennium: Their Stories, by James Andrew Mitchell, published by Down East
- By: James Andrew Mitchell