Dean Knutson

'This allows me to go places (where) I was never able to go'

Dean Knutson (2012)

Dean Knutson performs volunteer respite care visits in East Grand Forks, Minn., on behalf of Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota. The Grand Forks resident likes the fit, for several reasons.

“I’ve been told I can talk,” he said, smiling. He says he’s a good listener, too – a key component of respite service.

Knutson also is able to make those volunteer visits with greater ease. With help from a new custom-designed wheelchair, which he bought with help from his insurance company, and a wheelchair lift provided from NDAD with an assist from the East Grand Forks Eagles Club, Knutson is relishing a level of independence in 2012 that for several decades had deteriorated steadily.

“I can go anywhere,” Knutson said.

Knutson lives with myasthenia gravis, a condition that afflicts about 35,000 U.S. residents. The autoimmune disorder characterized by extreme muscle weakness and progressive fatigue. Its onset is gradual; its course, variable. In some cases, respiratory failure and death can result.

Diagnosed in 1990, the disorder sometimes caused Knutson to crash suddenly to the floor after exerting himself. That increasing likelihood cost him his job 16 years ago as a school bus driver and janitor for East Grand Forks Public Schools, despite efforts by the superintendent and a school principal “to accommodate me every way they could,” he recalls.

In April 1996, at age 42, Knutson’s inability to safely perform his work forced his retirement -- a heartbreaking conclusion he calls “the worst thing a person can go through.”

With his condition worsening, he found himself increasingly confined inside his own inaccessible mobile home.  He learned about NDAD, sought assistance and got help. NDAD approved funds to build a wheelchair ramp and wider porch door for his residence.  “I was very happy to get it,” Knutson recalled.

Ultimately, myasthenia gravis’ progression forced him to sell his mobile home and move into accessible housing.

In 2011, when his wheelchair became too ill-fitting and his vehicle ill-equipped to gain him more mobility, Knutson again contacted NDAD.  The organization bought him a wheelchair lift, supplemented with a contribution from the East Grand Forks Eagles Club, where he has been a longtime member.
Dean Knutson, in a scene from NDAD's video about its services.
By the end of 2011, Knutson possessed both a new wheelchair and a vehicle lift – “absolutely” life-altering changes that “opened up the door,” he said, to a more independent, mobile lifestyle. He can buy groceries, run errands and even occasionally travel – activities that had become very difficult, sometimes impossible.

“I would say 90 percent of the time this allows me to go places (where) I was never able to go,” he said.

For Knutson, there’s extra satisfaction knowing the help he’s received allows him to turn around and assist others – including giving his own mother rides to stores. And then there’s that volunteer respite work.

“No matter what shape you’re in, you can do some volunteering,” Knutson said. “It’s always beneficial when you can help out, too. It’s not just about you being helped.”

-- Mike Brue

The writer is communications director of NDAD.

(Note: Originally published in late 2012.)

Hear Dean Knutson explain how NDAD helped him in a video about the organization's services.