For Immediate Release (September 24, 1998)


Chicago, IL. Like the Nobel, another prize honors powerful change-makers. From Washington, D.C., Edward A. Eckenhoff, Chairman of the 9th annual Betts Award Jury, announced the $50,000 unrestricted cash prize will go to civil rights advocate and leader of the independent living movement by people with disabilities, Lex Frieden. "The Betts Award has profound credibility," says Justin Dart, Jr., founder & president of Justice For All. "Look at the people who have been selected. They are not the ones with agents who get TV spots or the cover of magazines. These real people are true contributors, whose work makes the world a better place to live."

A formal reception at the Library of Congress on October 29th in Washington, D.C. will honor Frieden and his life achievements. Funded by Prince Charitable Trusts, the Betts Award is named for Dr. Henry B. Betts, former CEO and medical director of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Now in its ninth year, the Betts Award annually celebrates one extraordinary living individual. "Lex epitomizes the individual that the Henry B. Betts Award was created to honor," Edward Eckenhoff, President and CEO, National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., said. "He is a selfless and tireless defender of the rights of millions of people with disabilities and, more important, an advocate and agent for change."

According to President George H. W. Bush, Lex's contribution to the independent living movement, and his instrumental role in the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), have made a profound difference in the lives of many. "I am delighted Lex has been selected for this year's award. Throughout his life, he has been a champion for people with disabilities, and I can think of no one more deserving of this honor than he," the President stated. "Since his injury in 1967, Lex has dedicated his life to improving the lives of all people with disabilities. I was proud to sign the ADA into law when I was President, and I am proud to have nominated Lex for this award."

Auto Accident No Dead End

After winning a President's scholarship in 1967, Frieden enrolled in Oklahoma State University. That winter, a car in which he was a passenger had a head-on collision. After the impact, he found he could hardly move or feel a thing. His neck was broken and his spinal cord severely injured. "A neurologist pulled my mother aside and asked, 'Do you want your son to live?' She said, 'What is the point of that question?' He said, 'Well, you know he's likely to be a vegetable. He might not ever get out of bed again."

Shock Wave

The purpose of the Henry B. Betts Award is to change attitudes toward people living with disabilities and to reward individuals who have powerfully affected that change. For Frieden, discrimination is the most challenging part of being disabled. Returning to Oklahoma State University after his accident proved impractical for him due to its old and inaccessible buildings, and because no attendant-care services were available. Wanting to complete his education, Frieden experienced discrimination for the first time. He applied to a more architecturally modern university near his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "I was shocked when despite my 4.0 average, exceptional test scores and superlative recommendations, the newly-built university turned down my application," says Frieden. "When I called the admissions office, certain there had been a mistake, I was told my application had been denied because I used a wheelchair, and that I would be too much of an imposition on other students. What if I had to ask their help getting into the few buildings with stairs?"

Frieden was devastated by this conversation and could hardly move or speak for three days. "The feeling was gut-wrenching. I was practically catatonic, I couldn't even tell my parents," he recalls. "But this first confrontation with discrimination strengthened my resolve. A few weeks later, I enrolled at Tulsa University, where they simply scheduled classes I chose to take in buildings that were accessible. Creative solutions seem to occur more naturally in prejudice-free environments!"

...and Smashing Leadership

Frieden went on to graduate from Tulsa University and has been honored as a Distinguished Alumnus. He also holds a master's degree in social psychology from the University of Houston.

He has done additional graduate work in rehabilitation psychology with support from an SRS doctoral fellowship, and he has been awarded a World Rehabilitation Fund Fellowship to study programs for disabled people in Europe. Currently, he is vice president for North America of Rehabilitation International, and he serves as a member of the United Nations Panel of Experts on the Standard Rules for Disability. Frieden has received two Presidential Citations for his work in the field of disability, and the U.S. Jaycees honored him in 1983 as one of America's Ten Outstanding Young Men.

Driving Down Care Costs

Frieden has advocated for the organization of a more rational approach to long-term services and managed health care through a nationwide system of independent living centers and personal assistance services. "One of my missions in life is to spread the word about independent living," says Frieden. "The idea is so simple. Disabled people don't need medical professionals to pull up their pants in the morning or visiting nurses to help them sip their orange juice. We don't want to live in nursing homes or institutions. But that's exactly where this over medicalized economy has driven us. By reimbursing high-cost medical services and refusing to pay for less costly but more critical ones like personal assistance services, the health care establishment has forced us to become the kind of people that drive health care costs up, instead of helping to bring them down."

Lex Frieden is senior vice president at TIRR, The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research in Houston, Texas. TIRR is a comprehensive medical rehabilitation center, which conducts clinical, educational, and research programs for people with spinal cord and brain injuries and other disabling conditions. He is also founder and director of TIRR's Independent Living Research Utilization (ILRU) program and professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine. From 1984 to 1988, Frieden served as executive director of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency located in Washington, D.C. In that capacity, he was instrumental in conceiving and drafting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Currently, Frieden is committing much of his imagination and energy to the recently organized American Association of People with Disabilities, a consumer advocacy and service organization patterned after the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

Betts Laureates:  Striving for Excellence

"Frieden is the pioneer of independent living and the father of the ADA. It would not have passed without him," says Justin Dart. "He continues his life's work as one of the world's leading proponents of independence-oriented living through TIRR. Frieden's efforts on behalf of the largest minority in the nation now rank him among eight remarkable individuals previously honored with the Betts Award."

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Past laureates are 1997, Dr. Frederick A. Fay, technology expert and civil rights advocate. 1996, Dr. Megan Kirshbaum, advocate and clinician, president and founder of Through the Looking Glass, a non-profit organization that benefits over 8 million American families with children in which one or both parents have a disability. 1995, Hugh Gregory Gallagher, scholar, activist author of By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians and the License to Kill in the Third Reich and FDR’s Splendid Deception. 1994, Ralf Hotchkiss, technical director of the Wheeled Mobility Center at San Francisco State University, supplying low-cost wheel chairs to third world countries. 1993, Marca Bristo, founder of Chicago-based Access Living and Presidentially appointed chair of the National Council on Disability. 1992, Jackie Brand, founder of the national Alliance for Technology Access. 1991, Ernest Johnson, MD, pioneering medical education expert on physical medicine and rehabilitation at Ohio State University. And 1990, Judy Heumann, co-founder of the World Institute on Disability and appointed by President Clinton as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services for the U.S. Department of Education.

To interview Mr. Frieden, please contact Roxy Funchess at (713) 520-0232 ext.124