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Pat Figueroa and the Battle for Independent Living in N.Y.

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 women’s 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 Nixon’s 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 Barrioh 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 wasn’t angry: I accepted what was given and concentrated on the things I could do, not thinking about those I couldn’t.”

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 Parson’s School of Design, and then went on to Brooklyn College, where the formulation of Figueroa’s activism began to take shape.

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 York’s Mayor Ed Koch’s 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.”

Pat Figueroa Circa 1967He may not have left a legacy as storied as that of the iconic Bolivian rebel leader, but his five years as CIDNY’s 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 Pat’s 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 wheelchair…. raising a clenched fist.

Len Tarricone is a freelance writer who lives in the Albany area.

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