Monday, December 27, 2010

Disability activist Max Starkloff, founder of Paraquad in St. Louis, dies

From The Riverfront Times in St. Louis, Mo.:

Max Starkloff (pictured), a longtime activist for disability rights and founder of Paraquad and the Starkloff Disability Institute, two local organizations that help disabled people live independently, died this morning. He was 73.

The immediate cause of death is not known. Staffers at the Starkloff Institute were told that Starkloff had the flu and would not be coming in.

Starkloff (pictured) broke his neck in a car wreck in 1959, when he was 21. The accident left him a quadriplegic. Initially, his mother took care of him at home, but after four years, he went into a nursing home.

"I was scared stiff," he recalled in a 2006 interview in St. Louis magazine.

"My image was that I would never wear pants again. We found this place in Eureka run by the Franciscan brothers, St. Joseph Hill, and I remember Brother Dismas, this little bitty guy, saying to me on the first day, 'You're not going to become our pet. We had another man who was a quad, and he became our pet.' I was furious. They were condescending about everything. The minute you become disabled, people talk louder to you."

Starkloff lived in the nursing home for twelve years. He learned to paint with a brush clenched between his teeth. And he worked out a plan for an independent living center, a place that would advocate for disabled people and help them live on their own. He started Paraquad in 1970, the first disability rights organization in the St. Louis area.

In 1975, Starkloff married Colleen Kelly, a physical therapist. Together they adopted three children and expanded Paraquad.

Among other achievements, the Starkloffs and Paraquad introduced curb cuts and handicapped parking spaces to St. Louis, made St. Louis the first city in the country to have wheelchair lifts on public buses and fought to make more buildings accessible to disabled people. Starkloff co-founded the National Council on Independent Living and lobbied for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

To understand just how significant all these changes were, take a look at Annie Zaleski's feature, "You think the Americans with Disabilities Act has leveled the playing field? Try walking in my shoes." Both Max and Colleen play a prominent role in Zaleski's story, discussing what it's like to be disabled in St. Louis, both pre-ADA and today.

The Starkloffs left Paraquad in 2003 to found the Starkloff Disability Institute, which tries to change people's attitudes about disability through education.

Max Starkloff is survived by Colleen, two children (another daughter was killed in a car accident in 2008) and two grandchildren. The family was not immediately available for comment; Daily RFT will publish more information as we learn it.

Mayor Francis Slay said in a statement: "[Starkloff's] life was the stuff of a great movie....He was an example of living a full life as a person with a disability. 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."