Latest “Who are we?” profile: Disability activist Duane French

Latest “Who are we?” profile: Disability activist Duane French

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Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s Legacy Washington program has released the second profile in its “Who are we?” series. It’s the powerful story of Duane French, a resilient quadriplegic who remade his life and fought for the rights of the terminally ill.

The profile on French, written by Legacy Washington Chief Historian John C. Hughes. The profile can be viewed here.

“Who are we?” is a historical project that documents the lives of a diverse group of Washingtonians. It includes a series of online profiles and an interactive exhibit opening in August inside the State Capitol Building.

“Duane embodies the human spirit and every one of us can learn from his journey,” says Wyman. “He could have given up after that tragic day at a Nebraska swimming hole. But with the help of caring people, he persevered and became a national leader in establishing rights for those with disabilities. It’s a very inspiring profile.”

Duane French and John Hughes

John C. Hughes interviewing Duane French. (Photo courtesy of Laura Mott)

It chronicles French’s life from his years growing up in Nebraska to his current position as director of disability services for the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services. French oversees a $53 million budget and 325 employees. In one sense he is uniquely qualified for his job.

In 1968, French was a happy-go-lucky 14-year-old until the summer’s day when he broke his neck in a diving accident. “There were times, doped up on Demerol, feeling useless, when he just wanted to die. Without his family and the intervention of other caring people he might have,” Hughes writes in the profile.

By the 1990s, French was directing a major vocational rehabilitation program in Anchorage, running for the Alaska Legislature and volunteering on the front lines of the battle to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. French was in the Rose Garden on July 26, 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed the landmark bill into law.

In 2005, together with Christopher Reeve, French was one of the inaugural inductees in the Spinal Cord Injury Hall of Fame.

During the debate over the “Death with Dignity” initiative in 2008, French became one of the leading spokespersons for the opponents of assisted suicide. The televised debates between French and former Gov. Booth Gardner, who championed the proposal, were marked by civility. They had become friends, agreeing to disagree. Washington voters strongly endorsed the initiative, but French remains a national voice against assisted suicide, as well as an internationally recognized advocate for disability rights.

The first “Who are we?” profile is on the Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney, a longtime Seattle civil rights activist. The profile can be viewed here.

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