Charlie Sabatier; helped win access, respect for disabled
A bullet severed Charlie Sabatier's spinal cord in 1968 as he crossed a battlefield in Vietnam to help another soldier on the first day of the Tet Offensive, and he navigated the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Four decades ago, he came home to intersections without sidewalk curb cuts, public buildings without elevators, and policies that set the disabled apart, sometimes in humiliating fashion. Mr. Sabatier made it his life work to change policies, physical structures, and the way people thought.
"My goal is equal citizenship," he told the Globe in 1988 as he prepared to step down as executive director of Boston's Commission for Persons with Disabilities. "Nothing less is acceptable. We're looking for equitable treatment, although not necessarily identical. A disabled person should have the same options as everybody else. I came within an inch of giving my life for this country. The idea of being denied equal opportunity because it might not be cost-effective is utterly reprehensible to me."
Mr. Sabatier, who helped get an elevator installed in Faneuil Hall and took a stand against degrading treatment on airlines, died of cancer yesterday in his Wellesley home. He was 63.
Raymond L. Flynn, who was mayor when he appointed Mr. Sabatier to head disability affairs, credited Mr. Sabatier's leadership with making Boston more accessible, including Faneuil Hall.
"Here you have the cradle of liberty, America's most historic building, but for people who were handicapped, there was no way of getting in there," Flynn said. "Charlie was able to work through the process and get it done. Because of him, the people's building really became the people's building, all the peoples' building."
As head of the city commission and more recently as senior policy adviser in the US Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, Mr. Sabatier worked to ensure that others would have a different experience than what he endured in the years after returning from Vietnam.
In Boston, he helped get dozens more curb cuts each year at intersections, pushed election officials to make polling places more accessible, and initiated studies to determine the cost of making each building used by city government accessible.
"I look at myself as a gunslinger," he told the Globe in July 1988, a couple of weeks before leaving the commission to attend law school. "I took this job with specific ideas of what I wanted to do, and I've done them. Now it's time to do something else."
Charles J. Sabatier Jr. grew up in Galveston, Texas, and was the first in his family to finish high school, said his wife, Peggy Griffin. His first attempt at college did not pan out, and he ended up in the US Army.
Stationed in Germany, he was later sent to Vietnam, where North Vietnamese forces launched an incursion in early 1968 that became known as the Tet Offensive. Mr. Sabatier was 22.
"He was shot on the first day of the Tet Offensive," Griffin said. "He went out to rescue a fellow soldier who had been shot, who was calling and calling for him. Just as he got to the young man, he was shot in the back. Ironically, it's what ended up changing his life in many positive ways."
First, though, came months of recuperation. Overcoming his initial embarrassment at having to use a wheelchair, he graduated from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1972 with a bachelor's degree in political science and became involved with the advocacy group Paralyzed Veterans of America.
While working in Washington, D.C., he met Griffin, who was there for an internship while attending Boston University. They married in May 1981 and lived in the Auburndale section of Newton.
Mr. Sabatier was assistant director of the state Office of Handicapped Affairs in March 1982 when he decided he would no longer abide by a Delta Airlines policy that passengers using wheelchairs must sit on a blanket, rather than just the seat. The airline said it was for swifter evacuation in case of an emergency, but Mr. Sabatier believed the policy was Delta's way of preventing damage if disabled passengers had difficulty controlling their bladders.
Arrested on a disorderly conduct charge for refusing to sit on the blanket, he made more headlines when he was arraigned in East Boston District Court, which was not accessible to wheelchairs. He refused the judge's offer to have court officers carry him upstairs into the courtroom, and was arraigned in the hallway.
Within a month, Delta dropped its policy of placing blankets under passengers who use wheelchairs and paid Mr. Sabatier $2,500 to avoid a lawsuit. The disorderly conduct charge was dropped.
After working with the city commission in the late 1980s, Mr. Sabatier went to California, where he graduated from the University of San Diego School of Law in 1992. During his first year at law school, his wife had triplets: Charles, Caroline, and Danielle.
"He always used to say he was the oldest disabled guy to have triplets the first year of law school and graduate on time," his wife said.
The family moved to Texas, where Mr. Sabatier worked on advocacy issues in the years after the federal Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted. In 1996, they settled in Wellesley, and Mr. Sabatier commuted to Washington for his job with the Labor Department, where part of his work involved veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"He knew how they thought; he knew the kind of information they would need and the sequence in which they would need it," said his boss, Susan B. Parker, director of policy development in the Labor Department office. "He knew what those transitions meant."
"My husband talked with them about the three miracles in his life," Griffin said. "He'd say, 'My three miracles are, I got out of Vietnam alive, I met and married my wife, Peg, and we had my three children.' And he would tell them, 'You will have your miracles, too, but you have to go out there and find them.' "
In addition to his wife and children, Mr. Sabatier leaves his stepmother, Edith of Santa Fe, Texas; three sisters, Lisa of Santa Fe, Texas, and Sandy Saeed and Crystal Foreman, both of Dickinson, Texas; and two brothers, Mark and Michael, both of Dickinson.
A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Wednesday in St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley. Burial will be in Woodlawn Cemetery in Wellesley.
Paralyzed Veterans of America Member Honored by the Department of Transportation during ADA 20th Anniversary Celebration
by Lee Page
July 20, 2010—The late Charles (Charlie) J. Sabatier Jr. has been posthumously awarded the 2010 Universal Accessible Transportation Award. The award recognizes individuals who have helped make transportation accessible to everyone. The Hon. Ray LaHood, secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation, and Federal Transit administrator, Peter M. Rogoff paid tribute to Mr. Sabatier, and presented the award to Sabatier’s widow, Peggy Griffin, along with their three children, Charles, Caroline and Danielle.
A Vietnam War veteran, Sabatier returned home paralyzed from the waist down after he was shot in the spine on the first day of the Tet Offensive while trying to rescue a fellow soldier who had been hit. A Purple Heart recipient, Sabatier continued to fight battles long after being discharged from the United States Army.
After coming back from Vietnam, life was very different for him. Now in a wheelchair, Sabatier couldn’t park a car, attend sporting events or do many of the things he used to take for granted because they were no longer accessible to him. He decided to dedicate his life to making things better for himself and others with disabilities.
“He wanted people with disabilities to be seen as people first, the disability second, and the only way you can do that is to have people in your community be able to partake in all these events that everyone takes for granted,” Griffin said.
After graduating from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1972 with a degree in political science, Sabatier came to the national office of Paralyzed Veterans of America and became associate advocacy director. Eventually he became director of the program. In the early and mid ’70s the federal government was looking into making public transportation accessible to people with disabilities. The Advocacy Program led by Sabatier was instrumental in ensuring that federal requirements of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 were implemented.
A watershed event occurred in March 1982. Sabatier arrived late for a Delta Airlines flight and refused to use the blanket the attendant provided for him to sit on. At the time it was Delta’s practice to give anyone traveling in a wheelchair a blanket to sit on, ostensibly for safety precautions in the event of an evacuation, but Sabatier thought it was a preventative measure in case of a loss of bladder control in disabled passengers. Sabatier pointed out that it wasn’t a special blanket and refused to sit on it, saying it was demeaning to do so. When told that the flight would be canceled if he did not comply with the rule, he refused to oblige. The state police came aboard and arrested him for disorderly conduct. Sabatier was arraigned in the East Boston District Court, a building that was not accessible. Refusing to be carried into the courtroom upstairs, he was arraigned in the hallway.
Sabatier got his day in court, however, in West Newton, which was wheelchair accessible. Sabatier, the airline and the district attorney reached an agreement the night before the trial. The blanket rule became an optional policy and could be refused. Delta paid the couple for their lost work time and attorney fees, and the disorderly conduct charge was dropped. This incident and countless others led Congress to enact the Air Carriers Access Act of 1986, which prevents discrimination on air carriers based on disability.
According to his wife, his favorite quote, by George Bernard Shaw, was also his credo: “A reasonable man adapts himself to his environment. An unreasonable man persists in attempting to adapt his environment to suit himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
After working at Paralyzed Veterans, Sabatier moved to Boston and became active in the New England chapter (NEPVA), where he also worked tirelessly for better access around the city of Boston. He helped the city get curb cuts, sailing programs for the disabled and zoning laws, and he played a part in making Faneuil Hall, the historic meeting hall and Boston landmark, more accessible. Later he served as a senior policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.
Charlie Sabatier died June 2009 from complications of bladder cancer at the age of 63.