Susan Sygall, a disability rights activist who lives in Eugene, has a special friendship with the University of Portland. (Courtesy Mobility International USA)
Susan Sygall, a disability rights activist who lives in Eugene, has a special friendship with the University of Portland. (Courtesy Mobility International USA)
A prominent disability rights advocate has developed a special relationship with Catholic-run University of Portland.

“U.P. is trying to embed justice in its students and the habit of making the world a better place,” Susan Sygall said Feb. 3 during a talk that highlighted a week at U.P. dedicated to ethics. “Here, you know there is something bigger than all of us.”

Sygall, who lives in Eugene, leads Mobility International USA, which she co-founded in 1981. Now 66, she lost the use of her legs at age 18 in a car accident.

She calls herself a happy wheelchair rider. Her book, “No Ordinary Days: A Journey of Activism, Globe-Trotting and Unexpected Pleasures,” dispenses with self-pity and seizes on rolling adventure.

“When I was angry, I was not angry about being disabled, I was angry about discrimination,” Sygall said.

About 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability, according to the World Health Organization.

Sygall and her group help people with disabilities fight for transportation, health care and education. She seeks to change laws and policy but also to alter the self-image of those she assists. Sygall led a group that had a mural painted on the outside walls of a Eugene coffee shop. The painting shows smiling women in wheelchairs and using crutches while a slogan appears in a half dozen languages: “Loud, proud and passionate.”

“We use a human rights lens,” said Sygall, who holds a master’s degree from the University of Oregon. “We are not about charity. We are about a more just world.”

Sygall, a practicing Jew, was gratified to hear that Catholic schools in western Oregon have in recent years made strong strides to welcome students with disabilities. She credits an important tradition of justice that runs strong in Hebrew and Christian tradition.

“You would think the faith communities would be the leaders,” Sygall said.

Sygall has worked with her synagogue in Eugene to increase accessibility, moving even beyond ramps to interior features like a table at a height where someone in a wheelchair can reach the scrolls of Torah.

The talk was organized by U.P.’s Dundon-Berchtold Institute, which offers classes, public events, and student-faculty research on moral character and ethical reflection.

Laurie Laird, who directs U.P.’s Christian service office, had a spinal cord injury that affected her mobility. She met Sygall at a conference and felt empowered.

“We encounter the question of not being enough,” Laird told the crowd of students, faculty and people from the neighborhood. “But Susan showed me that when your intention is to include, there is no litmus test. Her true north is pointing to inclusion and dignity for all.”

Sygall teaches a course at the University of Oregon on the disability rights movement. Last spring, she received an honorary doctorate from U.P. She calls her association with the North Portland Catholic college “a blessing.”

Students seemed impressed by Sygall’s joy. How does she keep it up? one asked. “Chocolate, friends and having perspective,” she responded. Explaining her perspective, Sygall said: “We have very few precious hours and days on this earth.”