From the age of 17, when he founded a counseling group for people with spinal cord injuries, Dr. Fay was a leading organizer of coalitions to battle discrimination against the disabled.
Through the years, as his own disability left him permanently bedridden, he remained a forceful national voice in demanding that the disabled have full access to buildings, services and the chance for an independent life.
Dr. Fay was guided by the same principles that had toppled racial barriers during the nation’s civil rights struggles. He helped disabled Americans gain recognition as a minority group that had long suffered from discrimination.
“He is one of the first people to envision disability rights as a civil rights issue,” filmmaker Eric Neudel said in an interview. “He was thinking that way as early as 1963.”
Neudel recently completed a documentary about the disability rights movement, “Lives Worth Living,” that features Dr. Fay’s life story. The documentary is scheduled to be shown on PBS on Oct. 27.
In his early 20s, Dr. Fay was part of a group seeking to make public buildings more accessible to the disabled, which helped lead to the federal Architectural Barriers Act of 1968.
While Washington’s Metro system was being built in the early 1970s, Dr. Fay coined the phrase “no taxation without transportation” to protest the lack of wheelchair-accessible elevators in the stations. Elevators were installed only after another disabled man won a lawsuit in federal court.
Dr. Fay was a primary advocate for two key provisions of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — sections 503 and 504 — that effectively granted civil rights protection to the disabled by banning discrimination by any groups receiving federal funding.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Fay advised Democratic presidential candidates and rallied support for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibited discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations throughout the country.
Working with former Reagan administration official Justin Dart Jr., Dr. Fay formed a nationwide lobbying effort to support the legislation, which was signed into law in 1990.
All of Dr. Fay’s accomplishments in the final 30 years of his life came while he was flat on his back. By 1981, a two-foot-long cyst on his spinal column, called a syringomyelia, made it difficult for him to swallow and breathe unless he was in a supine position.
“I went from a push chair to a power chair to a motorized stretcher in a year,” he told the Boston Globe in 1997.
As a onetime computer programmer for IBM, Dr. Fay was a proponent of technology to assist the disabled. He designed the motorized bed and a system of mirrors that enabled him to navigate around his house. He was using electronic mail in the early 1980s.