Remembering Paul Stewart, a champion of disability rights

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]nyone who knew Paul Stewart understood why his friends described him as a “joyful curmudgeon.”

He could be bossy and stern, never smiled for pictures, didn’t trust bureaucrats, and held everyone accountable to do the right thing. But he doted on his companion animals and friends, loved astronomy, made beautiful handcrafted furniture, read voraciously, loved opera music and telling jokes, and believed, as he’d always say, “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.”

Stewart took me under his wing when I was a brand new housing rights advocate with The Legal Center for People with Disabilities in the mid-90’s. We worked hard together for the cause of fair and accessible housing and remained friends for 20 years, even after I went to work for the State Health Department and became a bureaucrat myself. He told me he expected me to make positive changes from within.

Stewart used a wheelchair because he was paralyzed from the waist down after he was shot, at age 30, when he walked in on a convenience store robbery. According to his wife Pamela Carter, he lived in constant pain the last 40 years of his life, although he didn’t let that slow him down.

Stewart motored in his power wheelchair through the streets of Capitol Hill. Wearing a red beret, with his dalmatian Pepper at his side in a matching red harness and leash, they were a dashing duo. You may have seen them.

Stewart’s passion was to fight for fair and accessible housing and transportation. He lived in public housing for 18 years, and used public transportation. Imagine having a kitchen you can’t reach, a shower you can’t roll into, having no control over who entered your building and committed crimes against your neighbors, waiting for the bus in the rain and snow only to have it arrive without a working lift or wheelchair-accessible space. Stewart experienced all those things. He refused to accept it and took action.

He worked with advocacy organizations to take on the federal government, transportation authority, durable medical equipment manufacturers, and housing providers. And he kept on fighting until he got results:

Stewart would often remind me as we worked together, “My apartment is still inaccessible. I’m not just doing this for me. I’m doing this for everyone who has to live in these conditions.”

He fought and won reasonable accommodations like wheelchair-accessible kitchens and bathrooms that included lowered counter tops, stoves, ovens and cabinets; roll-in showers; flooring for wheelchairs to more easily roll across; and air conditioning when medically necessary. He helped tenants keep their service animals in their homes. He started a tenants’ council that demanded and got security in public housing facilities.

-Stewart was a plaintiff in the recent case against the Regional Transportation District (RTD), resulting in enforcement of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-required accessible transportation in the Denver metro area. He has helped train hundreds of RTD drivers.

He made life better for himself and others who use wheelchairs and have disabilities, according to his wife Pamela Carter and best friend Julie Rieskin, both of whom use wheelchairs and are disability rights activists themselves. Rieskin is executive director of Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (CCDC) whose mantra is, “Nothing About Us Without Us.” Rieskin and Stewart are two of the original founders of the organization.

Carter met Stewart after Carter’s wheelchair locked up on her, leaving her stranded, while she was trying to cross Colfax Avenue. Rieskin told her she needed to meet Stewart, who had discovered a defect in the wheelchair model Carter used. Stewart fixed Carter’s chair and forced the manufacturer to repair the defect in the entire wheelchair series. Stewart also scavenged parts to build and repair wheelchairs for people who could not afford it.

Stewart died on Nov. 7 of complications from pancreatic cancer, 20 days before his 70th birthday. Visit ccdconline.org/blog for more on Stewart and the work he supported. His death has come as a blow to a community and a poignant reminder of the need for humor, tenacity and fighting the good fight.

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