Charlie Carr Still Driven to Improve IL Cause

By Michael Reynolds

Charlie Carr is not someone who follows the beaten path.

Whether it was setting in motion the independent living movement in Boston, helping to found the Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL), or working to create a national network of centers for independent living, he has been a pioneer in advocating for community-based services for individuals with disabilities.

Carr, who managed a CIL for more than two decades, earned a National Advocacy Award from the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) in 2007, an honor he shared with disability rights pioneers Marca Bristo and Judy Heumann.

The newly appointed commissioner of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission recently spoke with a reporter about his past and his goals in his new position.

Charlie with Governor Patrick

Carr, born in Revere, MA in 1953, was disabled due to a spinal-cord injury resulting from a diving accident in 1968. As a quadriplegic, he completed high school at the Massachusetts Hospital School because there were no federal or state provisions at the time requiring equal access to public education. After graduating first in his class, he called the school “a prison” in his valedictory speech, an action then considered revolutionary.

He later moved to the Middlesex County Hospital, a tuberculosis sanatorium located in Waltham, Mass. There, at Wellington Hall, he pioneered a program for people with physical disabilities to get attendant care and attend college while at the hospital.

After earning an associate’s degree at Massachusetts Bay Community College, Carr sought a suitable program to continue his studies.

“My VR (vocational rehabilitation) counselor and I looked at jobs (in which) I could use my brain, (and) journalism seemed like a good fit,” Carr said. “It was not until senior year when my advisor explained to me that most beginning journalists were often chasing ambulances and fires and police calls. I never used my degree to get published after school, but the journalism background helped writing grants.”

While living at Middlesex County Hospital in the early 1970s, Carr frequently called Ed Roberts, known as the “father of the disability rights movement” for his activism in earning equal rights and access for students at the University of California at Berkeley. Carr was seeking a way to get out of Wellington Hall while attending college.

“There were a lot of parallels to the Berkeley CIL and BCIL,” Carr said. “They had Cowell Hall; we had Wellington Hall. There was internal organizing of the 15 residents of Wellington Hall, but there wasn’t much to go on, because Berkeley was new. I would take my leads from occasional phone discussions with Ed Roberts or Fred Fay or Elmer Bartels. If we needed personal attendant services, we’d get 10 people to sit on the front steps of the particular bureaucracy that could fund personal attendant services.”

Carr downplayed the radical links between students at Berkeley and those in Waltham, where Brandeis University (one of the leading anti-war college campuses in the nation at the time) is located.

“We were very apolitical,” Carr said. “It was not about radicalism. It was really all about getting out and getting into the community. I was aware of the anti-war and civil rights movements, but my focus was really on getting out of Wellington Hall. I didn’t feel connected to those broader movements until the 504 protests happened.”

(Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 forbids federally funded organizations and employers from excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services.)

Charlie’s official portrait as Commissioner

Carr and others founded the BCIL in 1974; in December of that year, he moved to his first apartment in Medford, MA. Carr resigned as BCIL board chairman in 1977, the year he married the former Karen Langley.

Shortly after graduating from Boston University, he got a job at the Massachusetts Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. After a couple of years, Carr heard about the possibility of funding for a CIL. In 1980, he founded the Northeast Independent Living Program (NILP) in Lawrence, Mass. He kept in touch with other pioneers of the independent living movement and became one of the principals in the founding of NCIL.

Carr left NILP in late 2007 for his role on the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. He plans to provide community supports for all individuals with disabilities.

His job, Carr said, “is the most demanding and the most intense” he has ever had.

“It’s one of the biggest opportunities I’ve ever had in my life to make a huge difference, not only in this state but around the country, in terms of transforming a bread-and-butter VR agency into an agency that reflects the real needs of the community,” Carr said. Those needs, he added, are “a portal into community living for people with all types of disabilities, and along that journey, getting a job is a huge piece of it.

“It’s like turning an ocean liner around in a harbor,” he said. “It takes a while.”

Carr said he wants the public to see the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission as “a community services agency with a strong economic growth and job-development component. We’re doing some really cool stuff with blending long-term care with VR services.”

As an employer, Carr said, Massachusetts is modeling itself after the Schedule A federal program to fast-track qualified disabled people into state jobs.

Carr also has new plans for sheltered workshops, organizations that provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as ethnic minority groups, the long-term unemployed, and those returning to the work force after a period of rehabilitation.

“No longer will this agency make referrals to sheltered workshops,” said Carr, who added that he is considering long-term support for them. “Only a commissioner can come in and do that. There are 25 things that I’m doing right now that in two years will lead to a paradigm shift.”

Given his track record, few doubt he can do it.


Michael Reynolds is a freelance writer and short movies producer.

Copyright © 2007 by ILCHV, Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley, NY

Charlie Carr speaks to the issue of the relationship between disability rights and general civil rights in this video: “The civil rights and disability rights movements”   Charlie is interviewed in a series of 18 segments as part of the “It’s Our Story” documentary on YouTube.