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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

NCIL Mourns the Passing of Deborah Cunningham

Deborah Cunningham, ADAPT activist and Executive Director of the Memphis Center for Independent Living, passed away May 7, 2015 with her family and friends by her side.

Deborah CunninghamDeborah served as activist, mentor, friend, sister, and boss to many in Memphis and across the country. She worked with and for the Memphis CIL since its inception in 1982 and its charter as an independent non-profit in 1985. Through the years, she continued to serve as an independent living specialist and mentor to individuals with disabilities like herself. Deborah stepped up to become Executive Director in 1989 and was known nationwide as an exceptional example of an advocate and leader.

Tim Wheat wrote, “Before there was any home and community options in Tennessee, Deborah was the “conductor” of the Disability Underground Railroad that moved people with disabilities from institutionalization into their own homes in Colorado where there where community living options. Deborah was proud to direct a progressive Center for Independent Living that focused on integration, equality and activism. She was the mentor for many individuals in the Disability Rights Movement and a skilled director, speaker and teacher.”

Sandi Klink wrote, “I count myself lucky to have known and worked with this awesome woman for almost 30 years in one capacity or another. She was my IL specialist in 1985, my mentor always, and my boss and friend for the last 15 years. Deborah’s legacy of activism, independence, and leadership will continue through her MCIL team, which she loved and taught well. We mourn, but we will fight on to Free our People!” 

A memorial service will be this Friday, May 15, 2015 at Central Station to honor her advocacy work on transportation in Memphis and across the country.

The following summary of some of her advocacy efforts was penned by an MCIL Board member. Updates can be found at the MCIL Journal.

Deborah Cunningham 1945-2015

There’s not one person in the whole of Tennessee who has been freed from a nursing home or saved from entering one who does not owe their freedom – in no small part – to Deborah Cunningham.

There’s not an accessible movie theatre space in Memphis and its environs that Deborah, an avid movie fan, did not lobby hard for. Ditto the spaces, concessions and restrooms at the Liberty Bowl are substantially the result of Deborah’s efforts (though not, thank you, a football fan). There’s not an accessible restaurant that Deborah, who loved to eat out, didn’t have a hand in knocking down barriers at the entrances.

There is not one of the growing number of curb ramps in the city and its suburbs that doesn’t have a piece of Deborah’s heart and soul. (And better sidewalks are coming).

All of MATA’s buses are now accessible to wheelchair and scooter users, and MATA typically documents a thousand and more rides every month by such riders. But it took this soft-spoken lady and her equally soft-spoken ally stopping a bus that passed them by to get MATA to stop for the rest of us.

Deborah’s tireless advocacy for individuals looking for accessible, affordable housing has secured shelter for, probably, hundreds of people.

There’s no one who saw Deborah “walking” down the street, no one especially who talked to her, who didn’t come away forever changed in his or her opinion of the strength and ability of individuals with disabilities. And there’s no simple telling of the impact she’s had on her friends, loved ones and those who worked for and with her.

The best laws are passed only because the best people work like the devil to get them passed. Even the best laws, however, are not just magically complied with. They have to be enforced by a tough beat cop. Deborah was that cop for us.

Deborah did not, of course, achieve so much on her own. She had the help, love and support of the many people who have worked under her tutelage at MCIL. But MCIL only survived because Deborah refused to let it die and refused to let it become anything other than a powerful champion of people with disabilities. You have a tremendous inheritance to carry forward.

Free our people!

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