Max J. Starkloff (1937-2010), a quadriplegic since age 21, was best known for what he did instead of what he couldn’t do. He founded Paraquad Inc. and became a tenacious watchdog for the disabled. His crusades persuaded St. Louis to install wheelchair ramps on sidewalks and lifts on buses, CEOs to make their businesses accessible, and builders to construct barrier-free housing for people like him.
For more than half a century, he used a wheelchair to get around, ever since his car overturned while he drove a date home in 1959. In March 2007, he fell out of his wheelchair at a movie theater and punctured a lung. After that, he needed a ventilator to breathe and lived with one strapped to his wheelchair. Mr. Starkloff was a quadriplegic who had limited use of his left arm. He could move his hand backward and forward, enough to use a joystick to control his wheelchair. He held another stick in his mouth to control his computer and telephone.
Mr. Starkloff pulled no punches when fighting for the right of the disabled to live and work among everyone else. Two of every 10 Americans have a disability of some form, he said, and the number grows as the population ages. He warned that this group is one that anyone could end up joining, although involuntarily.
“The obvious role of the disabled is that of the victim,” Mr. Starkloff told the Post-Dispatch in 2003. “It would be preferable if we stayed at home, out of sight.” That was not for him. “I’m not ‘confined’ to a wheelchair,” he once said. “I’m confined to what society tells me I’m confined to.”
After his crash, doctors told him he might live for four days. His mother, Hertha Starkloff, was a strong-willed woman who told his doctors they weren’t going to let her son die. He lived, and she took him home. But she eventually agreed he needed to be in a nursing home. He lived in one for 12 years. “So many people are put in institutions who are bright, sharp, well-educated people,” he said later.
During his career, Mr. Starkloff met three U.S. presidents and testified numerous times before Congress. “He was a true civil rights pioneer, whose lifetime of courageous leadership made our country and our community stronger,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said of Mr. Starkloff: “The designs and operating practices of the city’s public buildings, Metro, the St. Louis Zoo and Busch Stadium reflect his advice, solicited and otherwise. He cannot be replaced, only remembered.”