Backgrounder: The Acton Commission on Disabilities, a Short History

February 24, 2024
two people seated, facing away from a table
Joan Burrows, left, at a picnic hosted by the Commission on Disabilities in September, 2023. Photo credit: Franny Osman

When we first brought the idea of a commission on disabilities to the town manager in 1987, we were told that there were already too many committees and the Select Board could not find members to be liaisons.

Well, both issues were quickly negated as we put out the word on cable and in the local paper (the Beacon) that we would like to start a commission, then called the Handicapped Commission (after the state’s Handicapped Commission, now the Commission on the Status of Persons with Disabilities). Later the town acknowledged that we had more responses from potential members than any other group in town.

My friend Walter Kiver and I spoke to many people and chose five to meet with, as the group needed seven members.

We met at Windsor Avenue housing and what an eye opener of a meeting it was. Walter had muscular dystrophy and used an electric wheelchair, so we were familiar with many mobility issues. Now we learned that there were other people with different disability-related issues in town…how badly they wanted help just living in the community. We made a list and parking was at the top, so we began our first meeting tackling that issue.

As per state regulations, we  decided to start a commission rather than a committee (as suggested by the Handicapped Commission). Through many meetings that Walter and I attended we learned that the word “handicapped” came from the phrase “cap in hand.” And the picture one saw was a “poor crippled beggar” with his cap out for help. We did not want this picture. The dis in disability was not perfect, but disability is a better word, and so the Commission on Disabilities it was, and has been for the last 37 years. We needed seven members with varied disabilities. The original commission included me, Walter, two men with multiple sclerosis, one woman with post-polio syndrome, and one man with hearing loss. The state also wanted a family member and a town professional, so we also included a mom and a teacher. We had so many to choose from that we had a superb group to start us off, and off we went to work!

Joan Burrows is a volunteer writer for the Acton Exchange. She was a co-founder of the Commission on Disabilities and is presently a member. Joan has notebooks filled with memorabilia from the Commission’s many years of work.


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