Baylor College of Medicine - Texas Medical Center, Houston, Texas

BCM Family

(A newsletter for the faculty, staff, and trainees of Baylor College of Medicine, August, 2004, from page one)

Lex Frieden:  Making a World of Difference
for Disabled People Around the World

Most people hope their efforts make a difference. There’s no question when it comes to Lex Frieden. His work over the last quarter century has made a significant impact on countless individuals in Houston, throughout the country, and around the world.

As BCM Professor of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation and Senior Vice President of The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR), Frieden manages several research programs on independent living for those with disabilities and oversees the implementation of the American’s Disabilities Act (ADA).

Frieden became interested in working for the rights of the disabled after he suffered a spinal cord injury that left him without any use of his lower body and partial use of his arms. After his accident, he went to TIRR for rehabilitation. He said that working for the place that helped him recover has been rewarding.

“Most patients at TIRR feel a deep connectedness and achievement when they complete the program. Now I get to influence the policy of the program that made a tremendous impact on my life,” said Frieden.

His personal experiences led him to a curiosity about the research being done on people with disabilities. At the time, there was very little public policy in the area. Since obtaining his Masters in Social Psychology at the University of Houston, he has spent the last 20 years working in public policy for persons with disabilities, as well as conducting research in independent living.

“My association with these programs is especially important because I’m able to bring my personal experiences into play because my family and I are kind of a ‘living lab,’” explained Frieden, who has been married to his wife Joyce, who also uses a wheelchair due to a rare disease, for more than 25 years. The couple also lives with long-time friend Mac Brodie, who suffered a brain injury in the late 1960s, and their grandson Trey, 13. They live together not only as an independent living situation, but also as a family. “The key to our successful relationships is cooperation, collaboration, synergy, and symbiosis. We strive to work as a unit. Like any healthy family, we are mutually supportive of each other and make compromises,” said Frieden.

Frieden brought his public policy efforts to the national level when he served, from 1984 to 1988, as Executive Director of the National Council on Disability (then called the National Council on the Handicapped), an independent federal agency located in Washington, D.C. During his tenure, he was instrumental in creating and drafting the text for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is something of a Bill of Rights for the disabled. “The ADA was a major breakthrough because it was one of the first times that civil rights were considered in respect to the disabled, rather than viewing the condition as a charity case or social issue. Disabled people throughout the U.S. were given equal footing in terms of civil rights and the bill helped acknowledge discrimination. It was a tremendous challenge, but it opened doors for people and that makes it worthwhile,” said Frieden.

Frieden continues his work with the National Council on Disability. He was appointed to a three-year term as Chairperson by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on July 26, 2002. The Council is charged with making recommendations on disability policy issues to the President and Congress.

Frieden is also making a difference in the lives of disabled people around the world. He is part of the United Nations Panel of Experts on the Standard Rules for Disability, which is a multi-national panel of experts who are drafting text for an international treaty to address the needs and rights of the disabled worldwide. “Since I had been involved with the ADA, I was asked to be an expert consultant for this panel. My role is to offer guidance and advice from my experiences. This work is critical. There are millions of people in the developing world who are dying because they aren’t receiving appropriate care. These are the most forgotten people. Coming from the U.S., it’s my job to demonstrate leadership and promote opportunities for people with disabilities throughout the world,” Frieden explained. The group hopes to submit the proposal to the UN General Assembly for circulation in 2005.

Frieden also serves as President of Rehabilitation International, a federation of 200 national and international organizations and agencies in 90 countries working for the equalization of opportunities for persons with disabilities and their families within society.

As Frieden looks toward the future, he sees even more challenges. “The U.S. is facing an impending crisis due to the aging of the Baby Boom generation (in Europe and Asia too). No one has, as of yet, sufficiently addressed the coming need. More people than ever will be disabled in some capacity in the years ahead,” said Frieden. He is working with TIRR to generate policy options and using the National Council on Disability as a vehicle to raise awareness among public officials.

It’s good to know that Frieden continues to dedicate himself to making a difference in the lives of this generation and those to come.