Celebrating Champions: The 2012 Access Living “Lead On!” Gala

This year’s “Lead On!” Award will honor the lawyers and plaintiffs of three landmark civil rights Olmstead Cases, and will honor advocate and Paralympic Medalist Tatyana McFadden
On Monday, June 4, Access Living held its annual “Lead On!” Award Gala at Navy Pier’s Grand Ballroom. This year’s event, themed “Celebrating Champions,” honored modern champions of the disability rights movement. In the spirit of champions, the event kicked off as honorees carried an Olympic torch across the stage to Bruce Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome.” Over 600 guests watched while Paralympics champion Tatyana McFadden lit the final torch that illuminated the stage for the rest of the night. Master of Ceremonies and CBS 2 Weekday news Anchor, Rob Johnson, then welcomed the crowd and kicked off the night.
Access Living’s Annual Gala provides critical support for our programs and services. Each year at the Gala, Access Living presents the “Lead On!” Award to an individual or organization that has helped remove the barriers that have excluded them from career pursuits and everyday life. This year, Access Living presented two “Lead On!” Awards.

Soon after the opening ceremony, surprise guest Governor Pat Quinn delivered some momentous remarks. To great applause, je promised that the state of Illinois was committed to providing support services for people with disabilities in the community of their choice.

The first “Lead On!” Award of the night was given to Tatyana McFadden, a Paralympics champion and disability rights advocate, who was honored for her achievements on and off the race track. Born with Spina Bifida in St. Petersburg, Russia, Tatyana was adopted by Debbie McFadden, the U.S. Commissioner for the Administration on Developmental Disabilities. Tatyana was a natural athlete and fell in love with wheelchair racing. At age 15, Tatyana became the youngest member of the USA Track and Field Team at the Athens Paralympics in 2004. She won a silver medal in the 100m and a bronze in the 200m. Outdoing herself, Tatyana then took home four medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

Despite her participation in the Athens Paralympics, Tatyana faced discrimination from her high school track team when she not allowed to race with the other athletes. She sued the state of Maryland for the right to compete in high school sports and won. As a result, Maryland passed the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act. Following Maryland’s lead, 12 states now offer equal access to school sports teams for students with disabilities.

The second “Lead On!” Award went to the attorneys and plaintiffs from three landmark Olmstead civil rights cases. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court Olmstead Decision ruled that the unnecessary institutionalization of individuals with disabilities is discrimination, and that this type of confinement severely limits the lives of those relegated to such institutions. Despite this ruling, the state of Illinois continued to institutionalize people at one of the highest rates of any state in the country. With no recourse remaining, a broad coalition of law firms, disability rights groups, and individual plaintiffs took legal action in 2005 to force the state to comply with the Olmstead act. As a result of the consent decrees in the three cases, (Ligas vs. Hamos, Williams vs. Quinn, and Colbert vs. Quinn), thousands of individuals with disabilities in Illinois will be able to choose to live independently. The full legal team consists of attorneys from Access Living, the ACLU of Illinois, the Bazelon Center, Equip for Equality, and the law offices of Stephen F. Gold, and the pro bono support of the private firms Kirkland & Ellis and SNR Denton.

A few honorees spoke briefly after accepting their award, including ACLU Lawyer Ben Wolf, who made it clear that the group on stage intends to hold Illinois to its commitments. He said, “. . . Governor Quinn, we are grateful for the promises you made. And we intend to make sure that you keep them.”

The night was a success. With the support of the night’s Corporate Chair, Thomas J. Wilson, President, Chair & CEO of The Allstate Corporation, and auctioneer Leslie Hindman, who presided over the Live Auction, the event raised more than $580,000. The spirit of the evening was captured by “Lead On!” honoree Stanley Ligas, a named plaintiff in the case Ligas v. Hamos. Accepting his award, Ligas said that now people with disabilities can have a choice. “You have made my dream come true. Now I have my freedom.”