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Colleen Starkloff Continues Advocating For Rights For People With Disabilities

Colleen Kelly Starkloff has been on the forefront of the disability rights movement ever since she met her late husband, Max Starkloff, in the nursing home where he was confined due to a disabling car accident. Still a young man, Max was determined to live independently and help others in his situation do the same. 

Max not only left the nursing home, but founded the independent living center Paraquad and married Colleen.  The two of them built Paraquad from a mom and pop organization to one of the largest independent living centers in the country.  They also played a major part in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. A decade later, the Starkloffs met with leaders from other countries  to help them secure the same rights for their people that the ADA provided for people with disabilities in the U.S.  From that and subsequent meetings came the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD).

In 2003, the Starkloffs turned Paraquad over to new leaders and founded the Starkloff Disability Institute to continue their fight for the rights of people with disabilities. Although Max passed away in 2010, Colleen continues as Co-Director of the Starkloff Disability Institute.  Currently, she is fervently campaigning for the U.S. to ratify the CRPD.

CRPD is a United Nations treaty recognizing the human rights and dignity of people with disabilities worldwide. It has been ratified by 126 countries, but not the U.S. since it failed to get enough votes when it came before the Senate late last year. That is especially puzzling to Starkloff since it is modeled so closely on the ADA. CRPD has received bipartisan support, along with support from faith communities, disability advocates, business leaders and veterans' advocacy groups. It will not change any laws in the United States, but will rather export the ADA model to other countries.

Starkloff explained to St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh that is not uncommon for people with disabilities in other countries to be subjected to forced sterilization and not allowed to raise their own children.  Also, children born with disabilities can be taken away from the parents and placed in institutions.  Not to mention the practical considerations such as lack of accessible transportation, buildings and other accommodations.

The CRPD is 5 votes short of passage in the Senate.  Missouri Senator Roy Blunt did not vote for it last year.  When Starkloff discussed the issue with him, Blunt reported that he had heard from many more people who were against the treaty than those who were for it, so she encourages all who favor the treaty to contact him. The opposition seems to be coming from those who believe it promotes abortion or will hinder their right to home school their children.  Starkloff assured listeners that those fears are completely unfounded.

Starkloff feels that it is a moral issue to ensure the rights and dignity of everyone worldwide. “We believe that people with disabilities should be free to go to work so they can become tax payers rather than tax recipients and be on the dole,” she said. “But also, our leadership stands basically on the human rights stance that we have.  We think that moral and humane treatment of people with disabilities is very important for the U.S. to stand behind.”

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Mary Edwards is a producer for St. Louis Public Radio's broadcast program, "St. Louis Symphony."
Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Don Marsh served as host of St. Louis Public Radio’s “St. Louis on the Air" from 2005 to 2019, bringing discussions of significant topics to listeners' ears at noon Monday through Friday. Don has been an active journalist for 58 years in print, radio and television. He has won 12 Regional Emmy Awards for writing, reporting, and producing. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, was inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame in 2013, and named “Media Person of the Year” by the St. Louis Press Club in 2015. He has published three books: his most recent, “Coming of Age, Liver Spots and All: A Humorous Look at the Wonders of Getting Old,” “Flash Frames: Journey of a Journeyman Journalist” and “How to be Rude (Politely).” He holds an honorary Doctor of Arts and Letters degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.