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Alan A. Reich, 75; Advocate for Disabled

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 11, 2005

Alan A. Reich, 75, founder of the National Organization on Disability, the largest umbrella group for disability activists, died of congestive heart failure Nov. 8 at his home in McLean.

Mr. Reich, a quadriplegic since a 1962 swimming accident, founded the U.S. Council for the International Year of the Disabled in 1981 and was the first wheelchair user to address the U.N. General Assembly. A key advocate for the Americans With Disabilities Act, he also created the Franklin D. Roosevelt International Disability Award to recognize other nations' progress on disability goals.

He received the George Bush Medal in July for his work on behalf of people with disabilities.

Mr. Reich was "a mobilizer of the world's conscience," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who attended Oxford University and served in the Army with him. "He's very possibly the most inspirational single human being I've ever known."

A star athlete, brilliant linguist and decorated Army officer, Mr. Reich was working as a Polaroid Corp. executive when, at age 32, he fell from a rope swing over a pond and broke his neck. Told he would not drive or write again, he relearned both skills, returned to his corporate job, served in the federal government and founded a number of organizations. His name was not often in the public view, but his influence behind the scenes was significant.

"Alan was the leading visionary who had the overarching view of the disability movement writ large," said Michael R. Deland, chairman and president of the National Organization on Disability. "He was at the cutting edge."

One of the few times that Mr. Reich garnered public attention was while he led the fight that raised $1.65 million to add the statue of FDR in a wheelchair to the front of the former president's memorial in Washington.

"The unveiling is a major national moment, the removal of the shroud of shame that cloaks disability," he said in 2001. "The statue will become a shrine to people with disabilities, but it will also inspire everyone to overcome obstacles. When you see the memorial that follows the statue, what will be in your mind is that he did all this from a wheelchair."

Mr. Reich, who used a wheelchair for 43 years, organized the leaders of disability groups immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to make sure that emergency planning included people with disabilities. He, with Richard and Ginny Thornburgh, board members for the National Organization on Disability, persuaded Pope John Paul II to sponsor a 1990 world symposium on disabilities at the Vatican. Mr. Reich also worked for 30 years with the Harris Poll to track the progress of Americans with disabilities.

He was born in Pearl River, N.Y., and graduated from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he was an all-American track and field athlete. He received a master's degree in Russian literature from Middlebury College in 1953, a diploma in Slavic languages and Eastern European studies from the University of Oxford the same year and a master's in business administration from Harvard University in 1959. He spoke five languages.

Mr. Reich served in the Army as an infantry officer and Russian language interrogation officer in Germany and was named a member of the U.S. Army Infantry Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame.

He worked for Polaroid in manufacturing management and long-range planning from 1960 to 1970, when he was named deputy assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. He subsequently served as deputy assistant secretary of commerce for East-West trade and as director of the bureau of East-West trade.

At the same time, he volunteered, working to improve research in regeneration of the human central nervous system. He founded and chaired the Paralysis Cure Research Foundation, was president of what became the National Spinal Cord Injury Association and founded the National Task Force on Disability. He also served as chairman of the People-to-People Committee on Disability.

He persuaded the United Nations to declare 1981 the International Year of the Disabled, led the council that directed the year, then transformed it into the National Organization on Disability. The small, 15-staff organization was the first group concerned with all disabilities and age groups. Its CEO Council attracts 100 corporate executives committed to increasing employment for the 54 million Americans with disabilities and for the half-billion disabled people around the world.

The AARP magazine plans to give him one of its 2006 Impact Awards next month.

He was a member of the Achilles Club of London and the Cosmos Club of Washington.

Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Gay Forsythe Reich of McLean; three children, James Reich of Marshfield Hills, Mass., Jeffrey Reich of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and Elizabeth Keane of Arlington; a brother; and 11 grandchildren.


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