NCD Celebrates the Life and Legacy of Michael Winter

Michael Winter, a long-time disability advocate and employee of the U.S. Department of Transportation passed away suddenly the evening of July 11.  NCD members and staff are saddened by his passing.

In an interview with Independence Today done in 2007, Winter – a fixture in disability advocacy since the 1960’s – described himself as “a father, son, civil rights activist, former president of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), director of an agency in the federal bureaucracy.... and a Chicago Bears fan.”

Born in 1951 with osteogenesis imperfecta (known informally as “OI” or “brittle bones”), Winter was a lifelong wheelchair user who grew up in his beloved Windy City before inclusion of students with disabilities was common. While most schools were segregated according to race and class by neighborhood, according to Winter the school he attended “was the only integrated school (across racial and class lines) in the whole city.”

One of Winter’s earliest experiences with advocacy occurred in 1965 when he was a freshman after school officials ruled “we couldn’t have any French fries...” His brother Russell led the lunchroom protest. Approximately 300 students, opposed to being served “institutional food,” sang protest songs and staged a lunch strike that lasted about three weeks. In the end, they won and Winter detailed the whole experience as “good preparation for becoming an advocate. My identity as a disabled person.... helped launch my advocacy career,” he said.

In 1969, Winter enrolled at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL, grew fond of philosophy and studied the work of community organizer Saul Alinsky, who also hailed from Chicago.  Taking a page from Alinsky’s playbook, Winter and other students with disabilities once took over the university president’s office and chained a wheelchair to his desk to make their point about the need for accessible transportation.

Winter’s advocacy for accessible transportation would be a constant for the rest of his life.

In 1977, after college and a stint in grad school, seeking a “radical” locale, Winter went to fledgling Berkeley Center for Independent Living in California where he completed a six-month internship with Judith Heumann. He stayed on as their client service manager, a position he held for four years until 1981. For two years, Winter then directed a CIL in Hawaii, then returned to Berkeley CIL as their director for 12 years.

It was while at the Berkeley CIL that Winter studied business administration at San Francisco State University and successfully campaigned for a seat on the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District Board of Directors. He served on the board for six years, four of which included chairing the finance committee bridging his interests in finance and accessible transportation.

During that time, Winter was elected president of NCIL. He served there from 1991-1995.

Winter also held various positions at the U.S. Department of Transportation. From 1994 to 1997, was a special assistant to the associate deputy secretary and director of the Office of Intermodalism, a branch within the office of the secretary of transportation. Winter was associate administrator for budget and policy with the Federal Transit Administration from 1997 to 2000.

From 2001 on Winter was responsible for the full range of federal civil rights responsibilities at the U.S. Department of Transportation as they applied to the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and environmental justice issues.

In 2011, Winter was one of the feature interviews in Eric Nuedel’s award winning documentary Lives Worth Living which chronicled the rise of the disability rights movement in the United States after WWII.

In the film, Winter recalled an incident when disability activists gathered en masse in the U.S. capitol rotunda while protesting inaction on the Americans with Disabilities Act. The group was approached by a young, non-disabled woman excited by the size of the crowd. Turns out she was a tour guide, expecting to host a group of "handicapped" people on a tour through the capitol.

"I have to tell you something," Winter wryly informed her -- and viewers of the film later. "I don't think these people are here for a tour." Humor was a hallmark of Winter’s personality.

“As his star role in the documentary illustrated, Michael's life was certainly worth living,” said NCD Chairperson Jeff Rosen. “His contributions through direct and often radical advocacy were immense. On a personal note, I will always fondly remember Michael's eclectic collection of slippers that he would jauntily wear about town. He will be greatly missed.”

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