This summer, Paraquad Accounting Manager Cindy Stark celebrated her 30th anniversary with the organization. Coming to Paraquad just a year after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, she has been able to witness how the organization has grown in serving St. Louis’s disabled community. She has also seen how the Disability Rights and Independent Living movements have changed society’s perceptions and treatment of people with disabilities
Like some of the other employees at Paraquad who do not live with a disability, Cindy did not know a lot about the disabled community before she began working at the organization, but she was a highly qualified certified accountant and just what Paraquad needed at the time. Back in those days, she says, paychecks were written by hand for a staff of only 30.
Though Cindy didn’t know much about the struggle for disability rights and independent living when she first took the job, she could not help but be moved by the energy and passion that surrounded her at Paraquad. She was here during eventful years when Max Starkloff, Jim Tuscher and Bill Sheldon were among those leading the organization. Starkloff, left quadriplegic following a car accident at 21, was Paraquad’s Founder and first Executive Director and already a nationally known pioneer in the movement. Tuscher, who became paraplegic in his mid-20s due to a spinal tumor, was Vice President of Public Policy and Missouri’s leader in lobbying for the ADA. He was on the White House lawn when it was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. And Bill Sheldon, deaf but a skilled lip-reader in three languages, was Director of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Programs who created the first federally funded program of its kind at a Center for Independent Living.
A sentiment that stands out for Cindy is a remark often made by Tuscher. “Let’s get that fire in the belly,” he would say. Cindy says there was a particularly heightened spirit at that time. “People were going to Jefferson City, protesting and chaining themselves up to things. Just being around that and feeling the whole spirit of it was something to experience.”
Cindy is now working for Paraquad’s fourth Executive Director, Jerry Ehrlich. She says that much of what has been fought for has changed for the better and believes the public in general has a higher awareness of the needs of people with disabilities. Nevertheless, she knows that much work is yet to be done to educate the general public and break down the barriers that people with disabilities continue to face. She says we all should be aware that the disabled community is the only minority group that any one of us could suddenly become a member of.
Of the people working at Paraquad, most of whom have a disability, and those with disabilities they serve, she says, “They are simply awesome. Everyone here wants what is best for the participants. A lot of it is about seeing their independence and seeing that people with disabilities can have jobs and do well. They don’t have to live in nursing homes. They can move about and live their lives like everyone else does. To help someone live the best life they can possibly live . . . what better mission could there be?”