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Fred Francis: Disability Rights Activist,
Innovator and Pioneer

By Kathi Wolfe

Fred Francis

If you're in college and you use a wheelchair, wheeling around campus by means of ramps probably seems as natural as breathing. If you're a blind or deaf undergrad or graduate student, you don't think twice about using a reader or interpreter. And finding a center for independent living (CIL), a consumer-run organization that provides peer counseling and other services for people with disabilities, is almost as easy as finding a McDonald's. Yet, as recently as 1970, ramps, readers and interpreters were rarities at universities, and CILs were few and far between. Few back then thought that people with disabilities could live by themselves.

More than 40 years ago, renowned disability rights advocate Frederick "Fred" L. Francis, with the help of other activists, began working for the accessibility, civil rights and independent living that so many take for granted now. Over the next several decades, Francis, now 66, became a dynamic force for change for people with disabilities, not only in New York state, but nationally. His innovative ideas concerning rehabilitation and independent living greatly influenced many organizations across the country. Recently, Francis, along with a few of his friends and colleagues, chatted by telephone and email with Independence Today about his life and work.

Participating in sports was Francis' all-consuming passion during his childhood and teenage years growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I was a member of one of the few Little League baseball clubs in Brooklyn at that time, called the Grasshoppers,” Francis wrote in an email. “My...academic career at both Lincoln and...Sheepshead Bay High School was not memorable.”

In 1961, Francis began attending Long Island University. “I didn't apply myself,” he said. “I was more interested in baseball than in studying.”

He dropped out of college and worked with his brother at a Manhattan parking lot. In 1965, he decided to return to school and enrolled at Brooklyn College of CUNY, the City University of New York. Two weeks into his first semester there, he was in a car accident on the New York State Thruway and taken to a hospital in the rural community of Waterloo, Francis recalled. The doctor who treated him there “neglected to examine me for vascular injuries, and within 24 hours I developed gangrene in both my legs,” he said.

Eventually, even though the doctor realized that he had made a mistake, both of Francis' legs had to be amputated six inches above his knees. The experience, however, still did not make him take life more seriously.

“Everybody expected it to, but it didn't. I was still as immature as I was before (the accident).”

Francis had planned to work as a policeman, like his father and brother. But after his legs were amputated, "that ambition was no longer possible.”

He took a job working in the loan collections department of a major bank. As difficult as it is today for many people with disabilities to find jobs, it's hard to believe now how demeaning the process of obtaining that position was for someone in Francis' situation. “During my final interview with the division's vice president, he made a big deal about never having seen artificial legs and insisted I drop my pants to show him.”

It was a “real **** job,” Francis recalled. ”I was married then and had a child on the way. People who'd worked there for decades made only 10 to 15 dollars more than I did. I knew I had responsibilities and had to grow up.”

Determined to make a responsible life for himself, Francis resumed his studies at Brooklyn College. In the late 1960s, accessibility for people with disabilities wasn't even remotely on the radar screen of most college campuses. “People with disabilities were forced to go through medical examinations to show that they could not only do the work, but survive,” Francis said. “There were no bathrooms for anyone in a wheelchair. Finals were held on the third floor of the gym, and there were no elevators.

“Blind students weren't allowed to tape lectures,” he added. “The professors were paranoid about being taped. Deaf students weren't permitted to use interpreters. The teachers thought the interpreters were answering the questions for them (the deaf students).”

Francis became so angered over the lack of rights and accessibility for people with disabilities that he co-founded a group called Student Organization for Every Disability United for Progress (SOFEDUP). When college administrators refused to seriously consider solutions to the problems that SOFEDUP had recommended, the group took over a faculty council meeting, Francis said. “We wouldn't let the faculty leave. We had a meeting with the president of the college. Within six weeks, there were ramps. Blind students were allowed to bring tape recorders to class. They got rid of the medical examination requirement.”

In 1971, Francis graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology from Brooklyn College; in 1973, he earned a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling from New York University; and in 1977, he received a professional development certificate in rehabilitation management from the Rehabilitation Research Development Council of Cornell University's School of Industrial Labor Relations.

During his undergraduate and graduate student years, he developed a reputation as “a militant activist,” Francis said. “I became involved in politics affecting the disabled outside the colleges and was asked to join a new organization called Disabled in Action (a disability rights group organized in 1970 by disability rights activist Judith Heumann.)"

Through DIA, Francis got to know Heumann, now special advisor for international disability rights with the U.S. Department of State.

“He (Francis) joined us in demonstrations after (President Richard) Nixon vetoed the Rehab Act (legislation containing disability rights protections),” Heumann said. “Fred was dynamic -- an ideas person. We'd get together to talk about things having to do with the (disability rights) movement.”

As part of his coursework for his M.A. in rehabilitation counseling, Francis led a support group for people with disabilities. While such groups are commonplace today, at the time, starting a sensitivity group for persons with disabilities was a new concept. Heumann and Patricio Figueroa Jr. (editor of Independence Today ) were among the members of Francis' group.

“Fred suggested we start talking about our personal acquaintance with the ‘joys and frustrations of severe disability,'” said retired rehabilitation counselor Jim Ford, a paraplegic who was a classmate of Francis in his NYU master's program and a member of Francis' group. “Fellow members and myself sat there -- mouths agape -- trying to fathom the ‘joys' part of his proposal.”

“Fred always struck me as a bright, energetic fellow whose...love of life was contagious,” said Jim Ford's wife, Patricia, who has polio. “Sessions (of Francis' group) were held weekly, maybe for a month and a half, with Fred very capably leading...discussion of...dating, relationships, body image, et cetera.”

Barbara "Bobbi" Linn, a writer, disability rights activist and former executive director of the Bronx Independent Living Services, was a member of Francis' group. “Fred knew what had to be done," said Linn, who has cerebral palsy. "He wanted to cut through all the b.s. Sometimes that hurts people's feelings. He was one of the good people in the (New York state) office of rehabilitation. His support made it possible for the independent living centers in New York to form the network (of CILs) that still exists.”

Some people burn out after a youthful outburst of activism and productivity. This wasn't the case with Francis, who has had an illustrious career. For 20 years, he taught and held research and development contracts at many institutions, including the CUNY Graduate Center's Institute for Research and Development in Occupational Educational; the U.S. Department of Education: the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services; and the State University of New York at Albany, now known as the University at Albany.

Francis' first professional position, from 1971 to 1973, was as a vocational and career counselor at Hostos Community College (CUNY). After that, he worked at Abilities Inc. until 1978. There, he designed a national research and training program that would “teach vocational rehabilitation counselors to be active and participate in finding their clients jobs,” he said.

Francis thought that working with Abilities Inc. would be his "last job,” but he left that position when the New York State Education Department recruited him for an executive-level job as a division director in the deputy commissioner's cabinet for Vocational Rehabilitation and Special Education Services. From 1978 to 1995, he served as the state Education Department's division director for the bureaus of policy, evaluation, planning, research, interagency programs and independent living. From 1990-1995, he held the title of director of marketing and business and industry outreach.

“When I went to work for New York state, I challenged the Rehabilitation Services Administration in our region to use a percentage of Title I (of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1973) money to create independent living centers,” Francis said. “A few ILCs already existed, and I managed to get money to them that they couldn't get before. In 1979, there were 10 competitive state grants under Title VII (of the 1973 rehabilitation legislation) for establishing independent living centers and services. New York stare was awarded one of the grants.”

Patricio Figueroa Jr. was a founder of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY). “Fred was one of the top people at the state VR agency,” Figueroa said. “He approached us about whether we wanted to do a fee-for-service contract.”

Francis parlayed federal money under Title I of the Rehabilitation Act to provide the funding CIDNY and other centers for independent living needed for housing aid, benefit assistance and other services to people with disabilities, Figueroa said. This occurred over the objection of many who worked with Francis in New York's state vocational rehabilitation services, Figueroa said, because they had a problem with the centers being “run by consumers (people with disabilities themselves).”

They expressed their displeasure with Francis' support of independent living in subtle and overt ways, Figueroa said. “They rearranged the furniture for Fred, but they left a raised electrical outlet exposed . One day, his chair hit it on the way to his desk. He fell and hurt his shoulder.”

 

Before 1978, independent living services could only be provided to people with disabilities who were deemed eligible (meaning that they were employable) for rehabilitation services, Francis said. “After the Rehabilitation Act of 1978 was passed, there was a policy shift, and independent living services could be provided to anyone with a disability,” he said.

People don't like change, Francis said. “You wouldn't believe it! I was most unpopular in the Education Department,” he said. “They didn't like ILCs receiving funding that had traditionally gone to sheltered workshops. They didn't like independent living center staff being gate-keepers. One person said to me – to my face – ‘the prisoners have taken over.'”

Despite that negative reaction, Francis persisted in supporting independent living. “I got around this (the objections) by convincing the commissioner that vocational rehabilitation wasn't just vocational – that it was lifelong.”

Francis encouraged the business community to see that hiring people with disabilities would benefit not only their employees but their bottom line. “We showed PepsiCo, shopping centers and other companies that hiring disabled people would serve their customers better, including people with disabilities.”

Using statistics, Francis convinced Marriott and other hotels to hire (and provide needed support to) people with intellectual (and other) disabilities. “These large properties have a turnover rate as high as 200 percent in unskilled positions per year. We showed them that people with disabilities would stay on the job – that hiring them would be an investment that would pay off.”

Francis emphasized that he wasn't the entire reason New York state changed its attitude toward independent living and other operation and support areas. “At one point, I had over nine hundred people working for me,” he said. “I provided the concept. The staff implemented it.”

Francis' success with independent living in New York state was a model for people in the disability rights movement nationwide, Patricio Figueroa Jr. said. “Berkeley, California, was in the right time and place for independent living to happen there, but as the late Justin Dart Jr. and the late Ed Roberts said, ‘If you can make this (independent living) happen in New York, there's no stopping it.' It's like the song: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

In 1978, Francis and his first wife divorced. He retained custody of their two children. In 1980, he married his second wife, Julie. He and Julie adopted three children. In 1995, after becoming arthritic and unable to tolerate the cold of New York state, Francis and his family moved to Arizona. He currently lives in North Scottsdale.

In 2011, Francis became quadriparetic after developing a staph infection in his spine. He is now paralyzed from the mid-chest down. Francis has been bedridden for a year and is being fitted for a motorized wheelchair.

One of Francis' sons from his first marriage, Brett, 39, has a developmental disability that Francis describes as “severe mental retardation.” His work as a disability activist and vocational rehabilitation administrator made him a better advocate for Brett when he was going to school, Francis said. “I was in a better position to advocate for him because I know the law better than they (school administrators) did.”

Though Francis' friends and former colleagues respect his lifelong commitment to disability advocacy, they also relish his sense of humor. Patricio Figueroa Jr. tells this story: “Once, Fred, Julie and I were in a restaurant. A distinguished woman, who had cerebral palsy, was with us. Her speech was a bit hard to understand. The waitress wouldn't speak directly to her. She asked Fred, ‘What does she want?' Well, Fred started signing, as if he were deaf, to the server. She didn't know what to do. Fred just kept signing to everyone.”

In the era of Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and company, Francis was a “wild and crazy guy,” Figueroa said. “He made disability hip.”

Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet. Her book “Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems” was published by Pudding House in 2008.


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