Amber Leigh Tatro, whose 1984 victory over the Irving, Tex., school district at the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed disabled students the right to health services in public schools, died Aug. 8 at a Dallas hospital. She was 42.
Her family placed a death notice in the Dallas Morning News. She had spina bifida, a congenital physical defect causing partial paralysis.
“She never complained about her situation,” said a friend, Yareli Esteban. “And that always allowed me to see life from a different perspective. I would always walk away thinking, ‘none of my challenges are real challenges.’ ”
Ms. Tatro was born Oct. 9, 1975, in Dallas and struggled throughout her life with numerous surgeries. As a grade-school student, she would require help with catheterization several times daily to remove urine.
School officials refused to provide assistance, saying that having to do so would open a “Pandora’s box” and require the district to provide extensive medical procedures.
The district’s battle with Ms. Tatro and her family advanced all the way to the nation’s highest court, which ordered the district to perform the catheterization procedure. The landmark decision made a legal distinction for the first time between a related health service and a medical service requiring a doctor.
The decision “set the standard for getting ‘related services’ from a school district,” attorney Mark Partin said at the time. “And that allowed kids to stay in school who perhaps were being sent home.”
It also allowed the soft-spoken Ms. Tatro, who was distinguished as much by her big glasses and bright-colored bows as by her crutches or the plastic braces on her legs, to graduate from Irving’s MacArthur High a decade later.
Ms. Tatro’s condition would pose many difficulties, including three eye surgeries, two hip surgeries, toe surgery, a major back operation and installation of a shunt in her skull to help relieve fluid buildup on her brain. She also had to overcome numerous infections.
Still, when the day of her graduation ceremony came, she insisted on walking across the stage like everyone else to collect her diploma rather than use a ramp, as suggested by school officials. The effort earned her a standing ovation.
Ms. Tatro’s mother, Mary Tatro, said her daughter was “a wonderful kid.”
Music made her happy, her mother said, especially Elvis Presley, Prince, Michael Jackson and New Kids on the Block. A souvenir blanket that she owned depicting the boy band will be buried with her.
“In the last two or three years, everything seemed to be happening to her,” her mother said. “They tried everything. We just had to let her go.”
Through the difficulties of her final years, Ms. Tatro remained upbeat.
“She always had a way to make people smile,” said her sister, Kashia Wales of Dandridge, Tenn.
Survivors include her mother and seven brothers and sisters.
As Ms. Tatro’s health deteriorated, her laptop was her outlet to the world. She spent hours in her room, tracking down old classmates from her high school yearbook, cultivating Facebook connections and corresponding with them via email.
One of those people was former MacArthur classmate Esteban, now chief executive of Strategar, an ad agency. The two hadn’t been close in school, she said; back then, special-education students were kept separate from the other kids.
But when Ms. Tatro reached out to her as one of her many surgeries approached, asking her former classmate whether she would pay her a visit, Esteban was touched.
She did, and the two stayed in contact, periodically lunching at Red Lobster and talking about Ms. Tatro’s situation and the impact of her court case.
“She was just glad she could help other people,” Esteban said. “She knew that, because of her, that they could get services they might not otherwise have had.”
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