Bobby Coward, who was left a quadriplegic after a car accident and became an advocate and agitator for rights and full accessibility to public accommodations and services for persons with disabilities, died Aug. 25 at a hospital in Baltimore. He was 50 and a District resident.
The cause was cardiac arrest and infections-related sepsis, said Marjorie Rifkin, a friend and litigator on behalf of people with disabilities through University Legal Services, a nonprofit community legal group in the District.
In an auto accident 22 years ago in Prince George’s County, Mr. Coward broke his neck and suffered severe spinal injuries that left him quadriplegic. Most movement from one place to another was possible only in a motorized wheelchair.
Since then, he had been instrumental locally in bringing about reforms, such as making available wheelchair-equipped taxicabs, wheelchair lifts on public buses and wheelchair access to public housing.
Over the years, he had been executive director of Direct Action and chairman of Capital Area Adapt, both private, nonprofit advocacy organizations for persons with disabilities.
He participated in campaigns for greater access to public buildings for the handicapped and greater integration into mainstream care for handicapped people in nursing home and health-care facilities.
Robert Earl Coward Jr. was born in Washington on Feb. 13, 1964. He graduated from Eastern High School and attended the University of the District of Columbia. From 1987 to 1990, he served in the Air Force as an airplane mechanic.
In 1992, he was driving on Marlboro Pike in Prince George’s County when he swerved his car to avoid a collision with a police vehicle that was pursuing another automobile. Mr. Coward’s car rolled over and he lost consciousness, waking up the next morning in a hospital with a broken neck.
As he recovered from his bodily injuries, he became painfully and increasingly aware of the physical barriers that blocked full participation in community affairs.
Mr. Coward “told me about being ticketed a number of times by the local police for riding his chair in the street when there were no curb cuts in the neighborhoods he traveled,” Gerrie-Drake Hawkins, a senior policy analyst with the National Council on Disability, said in a statement.
Malfunctioning elevators at Metrorail stations and out-of-commission lifts on Metro buses made Mr. Coward miss airplane flight reservations and appointments. He attended the 2009 inauguration of President Obama in a wheelchair but never got close enough to see anything “but a lot of behinds,” he said.
Despite his disabilities, friends said, Mr. Coward kept a robust sense of humor, and he was impatient with well-meaning supporters who used “the pity method” to raise money for people with disabilities.
“It sets the disabilities movement back to a time when Americans didn’t understand that being in a wheelchair doesn’t mean being in a steel prison,” he told The Washington Times in 2001. “We need to show people that many of us lead useful lives and contribute to society.”
Mr. Coward’s marriage to Jacqueline Carter ended in divorce. Survivors include two daughters, Jennifer Coward and Erica Coward, both of Waldorf, Md.; his father, Robert Earl Coward, and a brother, Antobio Coward, both of Clinton, Md.; and two grandchildren.