Column: Terrible accident sent Dartmouth graduate on a new course

  • Mike Deland, president of the National Organization on Disability, left, and Alan Reich, the organization’s founder, at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. National Organization on Disability

  • Alan Reich, founder of the National Organization on Disability, was the first person to address the United Nations from a wheelchair. National Organization on Disability

  • Alan Reich and his wife, Gay, meet Pope John Paul II in 1987. National Organization on Disability photograph

For the Valley News
Published: 8/1/2020 10:20:15 PM
Modified: 8/1/2020 10:20:13 PM

As we mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disability Act, let’s remember the man who helped write it. Alan Reich also put the statue of FDR in a wheelchair at his memorial in Washington, D.C., founded The National Organization on Disability, and helped make the world better for 52 million Americans with disability.

His Dartmouth College classmates remember Reich always running. He ran to his classes. He ran to football practice (first team All New England). He ran to track events (All-American in the javelin) and captained the rugby team. And he ran the senior class as its president.

After four years with the Army, he went to work for Polaroid, working with a great company at its peak. His marriage to his wife, Gay, was a perfect match, and they had four young children. Alan Reich was golden.

But then he swung on a rope over White Pond, near his home in Sudbury, Mass. — something he had been doing all summer. But one day in 1962, instead of swinging out and jumping, he dove in, hitting his head on the bottom before coming to the surface.

Except that he didn’t come up all the way. “I was conscious but couldn’t move my arms or legs,” he told me in an interview. “If I had been alone, I would have drowned.”

Fortunately, friends pulled him out, and an eminent Boston neurosurgeon put him in the Spinal Cord Injury Unit at Boston University Memorial Hospital, where he performed a laminectomy at the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae.

Then the reality. “Your husband will never walk again,” the doctor told Gay. “All sorts of other things may happen, but you must abandon all hope that he will ever walk again.” Ten days after the operation, a classmate visited him in rehab, looked down on his friend, now a quadriplegic, and commiserated.

“Come on, Jack,” Reich shot back. “Walking’s not the only thing in life.”

Reich went home three months after his accident and returned to work the following May. Gay drove him to work each day until he learned to drive a specially equipped car. When he returned to his job at Polaroid, he was met with polite reserve. “They hadn’t seen anyone come up in the freight elevator — in a wheelchair — to the production floor, much less their former boss.”

Although Reich was confident that he would walk again, when his recovery stretched out, he developed an interest in doing something about it — and perhaps helping others. When he asked what research was being done in regenerating the central nervous system, he found not much. Granted a leave of absence from Polaroid, he set up the National Paraplegia Association on a pingpong table in his basement. Congress authorized funding from the National Institutes of Health, and he became deputy secretary of state, working with other countries to promote understanding of paraplegia.

His five-year appointment in the State Department showed him how those with disabilities were shunned in other countries, “a forgotten part of society, very much in the shadows.” He arranged to have a resolution introduced at the United Nations to have this constituency represented by a permanent representative to the United Nations and became the first to address the U.N. from a wheelchair.

Awareness of disability issues in the U.S. was slow in getting off the mark, so he left government to start a private-sector initiative, built on partnerships between government and the private sector. When everything came together, the U.S. program celebrated the International Year of the Disabled Persons with 2,200 local community partnership programs.

This initiative led to his founding, in 1982, of the National Organization on Disability. Its focus comes from research that identifies “pervasive gaps” in levels of participation between those with and without disabilities. The largest gap, which has changed little over the years, is in jobs.

Humphrey Taylor, who led that research as president of Harris Interactive, believes that the Americans with Disabilities Act would not have happened, in its final form, without Reich. Former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh agrees: “Alan was constantly making the case for it, bending every ear he could on the Hill and with opinion leaders.”

As a result of the ADA, many initiatives that have made critical differences in the lives of Americans with disabilities — curb cuts, braille on ATM machines and elevators, closed captioning, signers at public meetings — have become givens.

The depiction of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a wheelchair in the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. — not part of the original plan — was another Reich initiative. He lobbied Congress, raised the funds, and overcame opposition by pointing out that Roosevelt deliberately exposed his disability when visiting a veterans hospital or a Black college to demonstrate that barriers can be overcome.

Now the most popular feature in the Memorial, the statue of FDR in his wheelchair is the only such public monument of a world leader with a disability.

Reich, who died at 75 in 2005, believed that his most important contribution was awakening international consciousness of disability: “When I was in school, I had never seen anyone in a wheelchair. There have been great, positive changes in attitudes toward participation by the disabled. I consider myself fortunate to be able to do the work that I do.”

Shortly before his death, on the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Reich, was awarded the George Bush Medal for his work on behalf of the disabled.

In his 25th Dartmouth reunion yearbook, in 1977, Reich reported what he had been doing since graduation. Marriage. Oxford. Army service. Business school. Polaroid. Children. Department of State. His accident. “Three weeks after graduation I met Gay aboard a student ship to Europe, and with some exceptions, life has been smooth sailing ever since.”

Kenneth Roman, Dartmouth Class of 1952, was Alan Reich’s classmate and editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth. He is a trustee emeritus of the National Organization on Disability and the author of three books. The retired former chairman and CEO of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency, he lives and writes in New York City.

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