Pat Figueroa and the Battle for Independent Living in
By Len Tarricone
The following is reprinted from a 1997 article written
for Alive magazine.
Pat Figueroa is sitting placidly at his kitchen table,
elbows nestled comfortably on the armrests of his wheelchair, discussing a
treasured project: the collaboration with his eight year-old daughter on an
illustrated book for children tentatively titled Melissa and the Magic
Pen. His serene hopefulness for the successful publication of the fairy
tale belies the tumult of his early years, now a generation removed, when this
street warrior/organization guru/firebrand extraordinary for the disability
rights movement in New York was working on a plot much more dramatic.
The social unrest of the sixties had spilled into the
seventies, and as an idealistic Brooklyn College student, Figueroa found
himself thrust into the midst of the fray. Camouflaged by the anti-war, civil
rights, and womens rights movements was another battle, of similar
intensity, waged by activists for people with disabilities. It was a time when
reform legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act was a distant
pipedream, and issues like the designation of parking spaces for people with
disabilities, and the creation of curb cuts at busy comers, were timely causes.
Revolt was the order of the day, he recalls, and there was a
tremendous need for advocacy for people with disabilities. Organizations like
the Muscular Dystrophy Association, United Cerebral Palsy, and the March of
Dimes, while well-intentioned, were primarily cure driven, and not as prone to
focus on policies and programs to help in day-to-day life.
President Nixons veto of the National Rehabilitation
Act in 1972, a bill that proposed allocating resources to advance independent
living, served as a touchstone for full-scale deployment of disability
activists. In one memorable protest, a legion of wheel chaired demonstrators
literally took over a block in midtown Manhattan at evening rush hour, causing
mammoth traffic problems. Figueroa contributed to the fracas by hurtling
himself into the path of a city bus.
Born in the Puerto Rican town of Catano, near San Juan,
Pat was raised in the gEl Barrioh section of Manhattan, the fourth
of ten children. His physical limitations were often compounded by the
inaccessibility of housing, which in the late 1950's was not architecturally
wheelchair friendly. Most of his childhood was spent indoors and Pat was taught
at home, by his parents and tutors, until he was twelve. He insists that the
sounds of the neighborhood bustling below his window did not bring about any
feelings of resentment or exclusion. I wasnt angry: I accepted what
was given and concentrated on the things I could do, not thinking about those I
The real passion for this youngster was art. Although he
worked hard at scholastic achievements, it was his artistic ability that had
the biggest impact upon his career aspirations. He was recommended by a number
of grade school teachers for acceptance by the High School of Art and Design
and became the only disabled student in the school. The logistical challenge of
attendance was comparable to the course work demands, what with lugging
supplies to and from class through frenzied hallways and city streets.
Nevertheless, his performance was exemplary. After
graduation, he wanted to pursue the study of architecture in college, and was
accepted by Pratt Institute (The MIT of art in New York at that time, he
recalls). His eager excitement in attending was dashed, however, when he was
forced to withdraw due to the inaccessibility of that campus. He instead
enrolled at the Parsons School of Design, and then went on to Brooklyn
College, where the formulation of Figueroas activism began to take
Living with his sister in an apartment on the thirteenth
floor of a building with a faulty elevator, Figueroa was searching for more
accessible digs when he heard through the campus grapevine about a group called
Disabled In Action (DIA). They helped him to find a suitable apartment and he
willingly fell in with them, offering services to the cause.
This was my first contact with other disabled
people, he remembers. Until grade school, I thought disability had
been invented with me. Now, in my early twenties, my eyes were opening wide. He
energized himself completely to the mission of independent living advancements,
and showed a keen proficiency for organizing coalitions and bringing groups
together to unify strength. From his involvement with DIA, he subsequently
joined a City University of New York student based disability rights group with
the acronym SO FED UP, and was rapidly appointed its vice president.
It was in this capacity that Figueroa began to bring the
power of the political process to bear for positive results. Pat would trek to
Washington and would participate in rallies there.
Brash confidence, merged with a well-directed and
controlled anger, has made him in his own estimation one of the most
feared organizers in the city. His greatest triumph as an
activist leader, he said, was helping to form a coalition to stifle New
Yorks Mayor Ed Kochs 1982 gubernatorial bid. I have no doubt that
we were instrumental in the election of Mario Cuomo, who went on to become the
first state politician to recognize the political clout of the disabled.
Struggling for disability advances has been akin to guerrilla
warfare, he explains, and at times my tactics had some people
labeling me the Che Guevara of disability.
He may not have left a legacy as storied as that of the iconic
Bolivian rebel leader, but his five years as CIDNYs director saw prolific
enhancements in resources and outreach to the disabled in New York City and
across the state. What began as an office of three full-time workers laboring
on a shoestring budget has evolved into a staff of 21, operating with an annual
budget of $4 million by the time Pat left. From this, the first state-funded
living center, have blossomed 35 more throughout New York at present count. The
unceasing efforts for legislation, policies, programs, and funds for
empowerment, equality, opportunity, and accessibility began to take their toll
on Figueroa in the early eighties. He grew particularly weary of the political
infighting and bureaucratic shenanigans inherent in his post, and also realized
a compromising of his private life. After resigning his directorship, he moved
north to Albany in 1984 and has held assorted state jobs, presently as a
representative for the Office for the Aging.
Figueroa lives with his wife of 21 years, Denise, and
their daughter Melissa, a charming and engaging eight-year-old upon whom some
of Pats artistic ability has apparently rubbed off. As for Denise, she is
a longtime, accomplished advocate for the disabled in her own right. In fact,
the couple first met at a meeting of S.O.F.E.D.U.P. back in their Brooklyn
College days. She is currently the Executive Director of the Independent Living
Center of Hudson Valley.
Pat looks back with pride upon the accomplishments of the
disability movement and realizes the job is never fully completed. I
would like to see is the government guaranteeing a job to every young disabled
person in this country, he says, and adds that he has formed an alliance
called The New York State Institute on Disability for the purposes of exploring
economic opportunities for the disabled. And he would still like to make a
career of his art. He dabbled a few years ago with designing greeting cards
(it never took hold), and has high hopes for Melissa and the
Magic Pen and subsequent illustrated endeavors. For now, his lasting
contribution to the craft will remain an interpretive design that he created
back in the mid-seventies that typified a movement, and a man. An alteration of
the universal symbol for disability, it depicts the stick figure in the
. raising a clenched fist.
Len Tarricone is
a freelance writer who lives in the Albany area.