“Disability is equal opportunity,’’ Fred Fay told the [Boston] Globe in 1998. “ Anyone can qualify at any moment.’’
His moment arrived in his junior year of high school, when his hands slipped as he performed a move he often executed on a trapeze in the backyard of his family’s Maryland home.
Left a quadriplegic by the 10-foot fall, the young man had to decide what he would attempt to do with the rest of his life. Choosing activism, he became an early advocate for disability rights, playing a role in everything from ensuring the Metro subway in Washington, D.C., was built to accommodate wheelchairs to lobbying lawmakers to adopt the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Dr. Fay, a founder of the Boston Center for Independent Living, the Massachusetts Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, and the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, died Aug. 20 in his Concord home of complications from diabetes and urinary tract infections. He was 67.
“Fred was one of the great early pioneers in disability advocacy,’’ Jonathan Young, chairman of the National Council on Disability, an advocacy organization, said in a statement. “The depth and breadth of his knowledge and commitment was surpassed only by the life he lived and the legacy he leaves behind. It’s hard to fully appreciate the contributions of our pioneers because we have the benefit of living in the worlds they created. For most of his life, Fred worked remotely from home, which meant few got to meet him in person. But Fred’s work helped transform our nation from coast to coast.’’
When President Johnson invited Fred to the Rose Garden for the signing of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, his wheelchair had to be bumped up the steps – the White House was not accessible.
Dr. Fay’s life was transformed twice, once with the accident in 1961, and again nearly 20 years later, when a cyst developed on his spinal cord and moved into his brain stem. Trading a wheelchair for a motorized bed, he didn’t miss a beat. Using emerging computer technology, he advocated just as vigorously on behalf of those who couldn’t walk, couldn’t hear, or couldn’t see.
“He was a very significant political force flat on his back, influencing legislation to make the world a better place,’’ said his younger brother, Brewster, of Narberth, Pa.
Just as significant for Dr. Fay was his life away from the political fray. He lived in Concord since 1983 with Trish Irons, and before that had been married and fathered a son.
“The thing that struck me about him, always, was his amazing confidence,’’ said his son, Derick, of Riverside, Calif. “That was true in his professional life, and his advocacy, and his personal life, like when he was playing Scrabble with us. You’d think you had him beat, and then the last play he’d use all his letters and get the 50-point bonus and come from behind to win.’’
Here is a subset of his many accomplishments:
- In 1963, Fred and his mother (a formidable advocate herself) founded the Washington Architectural Barriers Project, which led the drive to make the D.C. subway system accessible to all.
- His legislative activism was instrumental in winning passage of the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, Sections 503 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975.
- He was instrumental in passing of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
- In 1974, he co-founded the Boston Center for Independent Living.
- For 3 years starting in 1977, he was Director of Research and Training, Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Tufts University-New England Medical Center.
- He co-founded the Massachusetts Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, and the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities.
- In 1978 at the the age of 33, he received a Ten Outstanding Young Americans Award for his contributions to “Human Improvement”
- He launched the ‘Justice for All’ forum.
- He was a pioneer in the development of “Assistive Technology,” particularly in the use of computers to empower people with spinal cord injury and other disabilities.
- In 1998, he won the Henry B. Betts Award for “flat-out advocacy”.
Here is a link to a short and moving documentary on the life of Fred Fay: “The Fred Fay Story.”
Fred is also featured in the new PBS mega-documentary, “Lives Worth Living.” Clips of LWL are available on YouTube as well.