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David B. Gray: Scientist Sought To Redefine What It Means To Be Disabled

David B. Gray obituary
Provided by Washington University

David Gray, a scientist who relentlessly championed the right of people with disabilities to live independent, satisfying lives, has died.

Mr. Gray, a professor of neurology and occupational therapy at Washington University School of Medicine, wanted much more for others than had been available to him after he fell and broke his neck during the summer of 1976. It left him a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down.

He became a key voice in advocating for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, led the effort to establish a structured exercise facility for people with impaired mobility and inspired a host of students to become innovative and compassionate health care professionals.

“If we were going to do research, we had to be in the community where people live,” said Kerri Morgan, a former student who became a colleague. The two worked together to form the internationally recognized Enabling Mobility Center at Paraquad.

Mr. Gray died of an apparent heart attack Thursday night, Feb. 12, at SSM St. Mary’s Health Center, after collapsing at his home in University City. He was 71.

Redefining ‘Handicapped’

At age 32, with a doctorate in genetic research, Mr. Gray was becoming comfortably ensconced in his career as an administrator providing services to people with developmental disabilities. He was married with three young children.

On July 14, 1976, anticipating rain, he climbed to the roof to cover a hole where a chimney would soon be in the new home the family was building just outside Rochester, Minn. He was standing on the ladder part that says ‘this is not a step,’ he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2007, with his characteristic humor. The piece gave way and he fell to the deck below, injuring his spinal cord.

Mr. Gray spent a year in the hospital. As he prepared for a new “normal,” his physiatrist advised the once-avid hockey player to let his mental faculties replace the physical abilities he had lost.

It was good advice, he thought, but when he returned home and to his job at the Social Adaptation Center in Rochester, he found few services for someone with severely limited mobility. It sparked a desire to work with people with similar challenges. But when he tried to change jobs, he had little luck until 1981, when he landed a position at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

It was the beginning of more than a decade of working at federal agencies providing services to people with disabilities.

In 1986, he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to head the National Institute on Handicap Research.

“The first thing I did was rename it the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research," he told the Post-Dispatch.

He later co-chaired a group that worked with the World Health Organization to drop the term handicapped. It’s a word that’s rarely used today.

Mr. Gray readily admitted that many of his appointments were due in part to his disability. That was fine by him. He was on a mission to build a more accessible environment to help ensure that others would face fewer obstacles than he had.

He would play a pivotal role in advocating for the Americans with Disabilities Act. He was on hand in 1990 when President George H.W. Bush it into law.

By the mid-’90s he had been deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

In 1995, Mr. Gray came to Washington University to teach courses on social issues and disability and to return to research. He joined a team that determined that paraplegics, through exercise, could regain some movement they thought permanently lost.

He went on to help establish the Enabling Mobility Center, now called the Health and Wellness Program at Paraquad, an independent living center founded by Max and Colleen Starkloff.

"We've built the best exercise facility in the country, if not the world, for people with mobility issues," Mr. Gray proudly told the St. Louis Business Journal in 2006.

But he identified unemployment, not exercise, as the number one health problem facing people with disabilities. Five years ago, he began a project that studied people with disabilities who had been gainfully employed for more than two years. He made their stories available to potential employers.

“If employers see success stories like these,” he said in an earlier University of Kansas profile, “maybe they won’t be so afraid” of hiring people with disabilities.

Living Fully

David Bertsch Gray was born in Grand Rapids, Mich. on Feb. 7, 1944, the second oldest of the four children of Fred Gray, an obstetrician, and Marion Bertsch Gray, a medical social worker.

In 1962, Mr. Gray earned a degree in psychology from Lawrence University, where he met his future wife, Margaret Esterline, now a professor at Fontbonne University. He later earned a Master of Arts Degree in experimental psychology from Western Michigan University and a doctorate in psychology and genetics from the University of Minnesota.

His numerous tributes included a wing named in his honor at the Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“The most important thing that I learned from David was how to live fully as a person with disabilities,” said Morgan, who has transverse myelitis, a rare virus that attacks the spinal cord. “I admired how he lived his life, how he did his work, how he was with his family.”

In addition to his wife of 47 years, Margaret “Margy” E. Gray, Mr. Gray’s survivors include a son, David W. Gray (Alicia Yamamoto) of Seattle, Wash., two daughters, Elizabeth Gray (James Nackley) of Woodlawn, Calif., and Polly (Bill) Payne of Livingston, Mont., and two grandchildren. He is also survived by a sister, Priscilla Laula (Sandy Kohn) of Charlotte, N.C., and two brothers, Fred Gray of Mackinaw, Mich., and William (Carol) Gray, O.D., of Alanson, Mich.

A memorial service and a Washington University symposium, originally to honor his retirement, are currently being planned.

If desired, memorials would be appreciated to Paraquad.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.