Karen (pictured in center with blue and white shirt and white pants) retired from Easterseals UCP last month after 36 years of serving the community and helping people with disabilities. Before she packed up the last box, we had the privilege of sitting down with Karen to learn more about her incredible journey and her close proximity to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that passed on July 26, 1990 and is now celebrated during Disability Pride Month.
As a senior in high school, Karen volunteered at an after-school program for kids with disabilities. On Friday nights she also helped make dinner at their recreation center. That is where she met Paul Hearne, a man with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. “Paul had the best sense of humor and was so joyful,” Karen remembers. “He had this great way of engaging everyone around him and his personality broke down barriers among people.”
One night when Karen was helping Paul prepare dinner, she dropped a bowl of spaghetti onto his lap…in his wheelchair. “I was mortified!” Karen recounts, “but he just laughed and laughed and laughed. After that we came fast friends.”
Paul eventually left for college and became the student body president at Hofstra University. His first job out of law school was at a legal services agency in Brooklyn, NY. Located on the second floor with no elevator, his co-workers had to carry him upstairs. This made Paul determined to advocate for better accessibility.
Years later, Paul became the Executive Director of the National Council on Disability in Washington, DC. While there, he assisted Congress in drafting the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. “Paul drafted it so that people wouldn’t have to rely on their co-workers to carry them up stairs,” Karen says. Paul passed away in 1998 after founding the American Association of People With Disabilities. His memory lives on and his work continues to advocate for accessibility and inclusion for all.
Paul inspired Karen to continue advocating for the disability community. In high school she was the President of the “Torch of Hope Club”, sponsored by Easterseals. As a student at Florida State, she began volunteering for Easterseals in Tallahassee. After college, her first job was with United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) in 1987 as the Vocational Coordinator at their Adult Life Enrichment Center. In 2004, when Easterseals North Carolina merged with UCP North Carolina to form Easterseals UCP, Karen stepped into her role as Community Outreach Specialist to fulfill grants for assistive technology.
Since the signing of the ADA into law, Karen has seen it transform infrastructure for better accommodations. “Universal design was huge!” Karen exclaims. “It originated in Raleigh from Ron Mace, a North Carolina State student who realized that his campus was not accessibility friendly. He paved the way for universal design in architecture which eventually translated to creating technology that was beneficial to everybody. Automatic door openers, larger bathroom stalls, etc., are all part of universal design.”
“Today, we see the positive impact of the ADA all around us in parks, restaurants, apartment buildings and public transportation. Our assistive technology even helps provide beach wheelchairs so that people with disabilities can navigate the sand and enjoy the outdoors. Big companies like Delta Airlines are also committing more resources to transforming antiquated designs to be more inclusive. They recently unveiled a new prototype for a foldable seat to accommodate wheelchair users. We are years away from where we were and years away from where we need to be,” Karen says. “The playing field is leveling out for people with disabilities and we are looking forward to more of these innovations. However, there is still progress to be made.”Karen plans to continue advocating for the disability community after her retirement. She hopes to volunteer as a walker with therapeutic horses for kids with disabilities and to stay involved in the field of assistive technology.
“I’ve worked at ESUCP for over half my lifetime. I’ve always said that I have the best job in the whole world. I love getting to understand and find solutions to people’s needs and I will miss working to help meet those unmet needs.” Karen’s words of wisdom to co-workers and other disability advocates are to listen to people, understand their needs and to never assume things based on appearances.
“Karen will truly be missed. For 36 years, she brought empathy and adaptability to work every day and it made her invaluable to every conversation, every request and every program she supported,” says Luanne Welch, CEO of Easterseals UCP. Her kind spirit, harmony and gentle nature has touched many lives in powerful, life changing ways. We wish her the very best that retirement offers, filled with much love, laughter and pure joy!”
To learn more about Easterseals UCP’s assistive technology, special assistance grants and more information please click here.
ABOUT EASTERSEALS UCP
Easterseals UCP North Carolina & Virginia is a trustworthy, compassionate partner providing exceptional disability and behavioral health services to help our neighbors live their best lives. Purpose, dedication and empathy drive our service delivery. Our diverse and inclusive 2,300 member team provides more than 9 million hours of meaningful support to 22,000 kids, adults and families in 11,000 home and community locations.