Monday, August 12, 2013

Easter Seals Celebrates the Life of Disability Rights Advocate Linda Gonzales

Contributed by C. Marie Maus

Linda Gonzales, a founder and first executive director of the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL), and long-time advocate and champion for the rights of people with disabilities, passed away on July 27, 2013.  Gonzales worked tirelessly to promote and improve the rights and ability of people with disabilities to live independently in all parts of the United States.  For Gonzales, who spent most of her career focusing on the needs of and services for rural residents with disabilities, two top priorities were helping rural residents find or maintain employment in their rural communities and improving the availability of accessible transportation in those areas.

Her involvement with Easter Seals touched both of those priority areas. Gonzales was an early supporter and collaborator with Easter Seals on the National AgrAbility Project, a program for farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers and their families who experienced disability.  And in 2006, she became a member of the Easter Seals Project ACTION (ESPA) National Steering Committee, on which she served as chair from 2007 to 2008.  Gonzales’ said her focus on transportation was based on the fact that, “It [transportation] was a huge stumbling block for everyone out there in rural areas.”  In 2001, APRIL received funding from the U.S. Department of Education for a five-year demonstration project to implement a transportation voucher system.  The knowledge and experience she gained through that project was put to good use in her role on the ESPA National Steering Committee.

Gonzales began her career in Independent Living as a counselor at New Vistas, a center for independent living (CIL) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1982.  She became the executive director and remained there until 1993.  In 1994, she began her 16-year career with APRIL.  As director of APRIL, she moved the organization from fledgling to national innovator. 

Throughout her career, she took a special interest in building bridges between university research and field applications with consumers.  Whether it was transportation, rural independent living, peer mentoring, secondary conditions, or community participation, she was dedicated to bringing consumer voices to the table of research and training efforts. She encouraged and supported collaboration across a variety of programs and organizations, working closely with a number of organizations including the ILRU (Independent Living Research Utilization - a national center for information, training, research, and technical assistance in independent living), the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), the University of Kansas, and the University of Montana Rural Institute.

Photo of Linda Gonzales Linda Gonzales’ impact on the independent living movement, in general, and the rural independent living movement, in specific, will be felt for years to come. Although her legacy lives on through the Linda Gonzales Award for Outstanding Rural Youth, which is presented each year at the APRIL Annual Conference, she will most certainly be missed!

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