Jim Donald, 57; Quadriplegic Attorney Fought for Independent Living, Access for the Disabled

Times Staff Writer

Jim Donald, a quadriplegic attorney who helped conceive many of the laws that made public buildings and transportation in California accessible to the disabled, has died. He was 57.

Donald, who practiced law out of his Sacramento home, apparently fell over in his wheelchair and was unable to breathe in that position.

A client found Donald and he was rushed to a local hospital, where he died Feb. 24. The cause was accidental asphyxiation, said his wife, Grace Javier Donald.

Donald, who was disabled in an accident when he was 19, was one of the first quadriplegic students to live on the campus of UC Berkeley in the mid-1960s.

Berkeley became a starting point for activists pushing rights for the disabled. Among them was Ed Roberts, the first quadriplegic to run the state Department of Rehabilitation. An appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown, who became a champion of independent living for the severely disabled, Roberts made Donald, his former dorm mate, the deputy director for legal and legislative affairs in 1975.

Over the next seven years, Donald focused on changing state laws to give the disabled access to public places. Guided by his own frustrations over the physical barriers he encountered daily, he helped fight for regulations that made such amenities as curb cuts and wheelchair lifts part of everyday life.

As a plaintiff in several groundbreaking cases, he also helped to make automated teller machines accessible to wheelchair users and cleared the way for the disabled to sue public establishments that unintentionally excluded them by virtue of their design.

"He was tenacious," said Joan Leon, a former colleague who was an assistant to Roberts at the Department of Rehabilitation during the Brown years. "He had the determination, the drive and the humor" to bring about changes.

Donald was born in El Paso and grew up in Palo Alto, one of eight children in a large Catholic family.

He had completed a few years at San Jose State when he broke his neck in an auto accident. It left him paralyzed from the chest down, with limited use of his fingers.

Doctors told him he was so damaged that he would not be able to sit up in a wheelchair.

He proved them wrong. He spent several months in a rehabilitation program, gaining enough strength to move about in a wheelchair by himself.

Donald entered Berkeley in the summer of 1967, living on campus at Cowell Hospital, where the third floor had been turned into a residence for Roberts and a few other students who used wheelchairs. The Cowell program, which provided attendants, medical support and meals, enabled the students to function on campus. A newspaper soon dubbed them the "Rolling Quads."

Donald stayed at Cowell less than a year. Ignoring the warnings of a dorm mate that he would not survive on his own, he moved out with another Cowell friend into a two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley.

Life on the outside was more difficult -- this was 1968, long before curb cuts and wheelchair ramps were common, and before independent living for the disabled was even a concept.

In risking life outside the hospital or nursing home, he embodied the goals of what would become a national movement led by Roberts and others in Berkeley.

"In the midst of the campus maelstrom of free speech, civil rights and antiwar protests, they experimented with radical changes in their daily lives, articulated a new philosophy of independence, and raised their experience to a political cause on campus and in the community," Ann Lage and Susan O'Hara wrote of the original Cowell group in an oral history series on the movement for rights for the disabled. The political and social tumult of the late 1960s touched Donald personally.

One time he was on the steps overlooking Sproul Plaza watching police sweep the campus of protesters. The officers ordered him to leave and pointed toward the stairs, but he was in his wheelchair and had no attendant to help him.

"I started to laugh at them," Donald recalled in his 1998 oral history interview. "I said, 'What do you want me to do?' "

One officer struck the back of his head. Another grabbed his chair and seemed about to push him over the edge when a group of students stormed over and carried Donald safely down the steps.

"I think I happened to become disabled ... at the appropriate time for change," he said, referring to the increasing number of disabled Vietnam veterans and emerging technical improvements, such as electric wheelchairs.

He graduated from Berkeley in 1969 and headed for law school at UC Davis.

Within a few years he was helping Roberts and another former Cowell resident, John Hessler, write grant proposals for what became the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley. The center became the nucleus of a national movement to enable the severely disabled to live outside hospitals and institutions.

After graduating from law school, Donald was hired in 1972 as a deputy attorney general under Evelle Younger. He began to work on disability issues through a task force that Younger asked him to establish.

When Brown was elected governor, Donald applied for the job of director of the Department of Rehabilitation. But his friend Roberts beat him to it.

Roberts overhauled the department, making the empowerment of the most severely disabled his top priority.

"It was kind of a honeymoon for disability ... and we started writing laws left and right," Donald said. "It was a wonderful experience because all of a sudden I embodied the problems that I wanted to solve.... If I had a problem personally, I would try to legislate it, solve the problem for everybody."

He waged battles that eliminated the prohibition against disabled jurors and made it easier for the disabled to obtain auto insurance.

He also championed a law that gave wheelchair users the same right as the legally blind to have guide dogs accompany them on planes, trains and in other public places. It is often called the Gus law, after Donald's dog, a golden retriever.

Donald also helped lead a review of state building standards that resulted in numerous regulations that made such things as curbs, buses and public facilities more usable for the disabled.

The California regulations became the model for the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which bans discrimination against the disabled in employment, public accommodations, transportation and telecommunications.

On several occasions, Donald became a plaintiff. He once sued a Sacramento bank after it ignored his complaint that he could not reach its automated teller machine from his wheelchair. In 1989 he won design changes that made the machines more accessible.

"That was the case that basically held that all of the automated teller machines in the state had to be disabled-accessible," said Oakland attorney Paul Rein, a specialist in disability rights who represented Donald in the case.

It was also the first appellate case that confirmed the ability of a disabled person to enforce California's disabled rights statutes through a private lawsuit, Rein said.

On another occasion, Donald sued a San Francisco restaurant that had been designed with all the seating on an upper level that could be reached only by stairs.

The court ruled that the legal concept of strict liability held in this case, meaning that the restaurant was liable, even though it did not intend to discriminate against the disabled.

After Brown left office, Donald helped Roberts found Disabled Peoples International, which promoted independent living throughout the world.

He traveled widely as the organization's representative at the United Nations for many years.

During the last 10 years of his life, Donald concentrated on his private practice, gradually shifting his focus away from cases involving rights for the disabled because he believed that so many major advances had been made, his wife said.

There was one story he liked to tell about how much times had changed.

He had gone into a rough neighborhood to evict a tenant for one of his clients. Enraged, the tenant grabbed his shirt and tried to hit him.

"My immediate thought was not fear," Donald told an interviewer, "but 'I've integrated!' He was going to hit me! I'm nothing special!"

In addition to his wife of 13 years, Donald is survived by his parents, seven brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews.

The family asks that any memorial donations be sent to California Jesuit Missionaries, Honduras Mission, c/o Father Jack Donald, 284 Stanyan St., San Francisco, CA 94118.

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