Remarks of Marca Bristo at the Memorial Service of Dr. Henry Betts

Marca Bristo, Dr. Henry Betts, and Beatrice Cummings Mayer

Thank you Monika and Amanda for giving me the opportunity to honor the legacy of your husband and father and my friend, Henry.

As the two of you know better than anyone, I first met Dr. Betts in June of 1977 having just broke my neck in a diving accident. I was a labor and delivery nurse at Prentice at the time. I was having difficulties getting my transfer from Northwestern to RIC and it just so happened that Monika went into labor on that very day. My nurse friends stopped Henry on his way into the delivery suite and said “Our friend Marca needs your help.” Henry left Monika’s side and called over to RIC telling them, “Give this young woman whatever she wants.” That is the kind of doctor and man he was. He put his clients first. That began our 35 year collaboration and friendship. Dr. Betts changed my life and the lives of countless other people with disabilities like me. He was a visionary physician, educator and leader.

He developed the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation and taught more physiatrists than any other person in the world. His mission was not to “fix” us but to teach us to make the most of our talents and to get back into life.

He understood that all the medical intervention in the world made little difference if the world wasn’t equipped to allow us to participate. He learned this from listening to us! In his early years he would spend Saturdays often observing the meeting of an early advocacy group COPH. He paid attention to what was missing in our lives and set about to change things. That relationship with my predecessors lead to RIC’s critical community work. The establishment of disabled sports teams, art exhibitions, writing the first accessibility code in the state, and the eventual founding of Access Living which I have had the honor of leading for the past 35 years.

Henry was my mentor and I and many other people with disabilities were his mentors as well.

He believed in us. He listened to us.

He enabled the fledgling disability rights movement to find its own voice and he opened doors to civic leaders to support our efforts. Then he followed our lead always ready to use his position to further our cause.

I have a collection of letters from Dr. Betts to Senators, Church leaders, the Commercial Club, the American Medical Association (AMA), and the President of the United States urging all of them to action on our behalf.

He called for the Roosevelt memorial to be revised to include President Roosevelt in his wheelchair, for the ADA to be passed, for churches to become more accessible to people with disabilities, and for doctors and the medical profession to listen to us.

Let me read an excerpt from just one of those letters written to Senator Kennedy:

“When I was in Medical School at the University of Virginia (in Jefferson’s shadow as you may remember), we sent all people with disabilities (“cripples”) to a place in Richmond called “The Home for the Incurables.” It was like a life sentence with no trial. I am of the opinion that no minority group has had more disenfranchisement, more unfairness or more “torture” than have the disabled. Correcting this is one of the reasons I went into this field of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.”

Over the last several years of his life, Dr. Betts did what he so long ago forecast most Americans would do – he joined the ranks of 54 million of us living with disabilities. I was so proud to sit at his side in our respective wheelchairs at Daley Plaza as we called upon the Governor to refrain from cutting our home services and to instead move people out of nursing homes. His presence there meant so much to all of us.

Perhaps what really set Henry apart was the very personal way in which he went about his work. He cared about people: from the elevator operators and nursing assistants at RIC, to advocates around the country. He took personal interest in our lives and our development. From the Facebook posts and emails that poured in following his passing, to the notes he sent to my young staff praising their victories, everyone agreed, he respected us, our dignity, and in so doing lifted us up to reach our potential.

And for that I and thousands of Americans with disabilities will always remember him with love and dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of his unfinished agenda – the one he spoke about to anyone who would listen – tackling the appalling unemployment of PWD. On the cusp of the 25th anniversary of the ADA and in Henry’s memory – we ask all of you to join us in realizing his final goal. If he were here with us now, I know that would be his last word!

So now, dear friend, may you rest in peace and in the glory of a life well lived!


Access Living “Lead On!” Award Tribute Video for Dr. Henry Betts