By Emily Langer
Yesterday at 7:24 p.m. EDT
Sept. 29, 2021
Marilyn Golden, a nationally known disability rights advocate who spent nearly her entire adult life – ever since she was paralyzed in an accident during college – working on behalf of laws and public policy that made it easier for disabled people to ride buses, enter buildings and otherwise navigate the world, died Sept. 21 at her home in Berkeley, Calif. She was 67.
Her death was announced by the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), where Ms. Golden was a senior policy analyst. The cause was melanoma, according to her companion, Rabbi David J. Cooper.
Ms. Golden was traveling through Switzerland in the summer of 1976 when she fell from a tree, sustaining a spinal-cord injury that left her paralyzed below the midpoint of her back. She underwent extensive rehabilitation, as well as an emotional awakening that led her to the cause to which she would dedicate nearly the next half-century.
“I got radicalized, in a general sense, after I got hurt,” Ms. Golden recalled, according to DREDF. In disability rights advocacy, she added, she discovered “a place where I could play a role.”
Ms. Golden, who had worked with DREDF since 1988, was a leading advocate for passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a landmark law, signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in areas including transportation, employment and access to public accommodations.
The legislation was the result of negotiations that in many cases pitted disability rights activists against business interests and government officials concerned about the cost of constructing buildings outfitted with the accommodations the act would require.
In Ms. Golden, the disability community found a powerful champion. She persuasively argued their case and helped translate regulatory arcana into real-world policies that altered the lives of people who use wheelchairs, who cannot see or hear and who face other challenges that complicate daily life in a world that often overlooks their needs.
“Marilyn was a tenacious and effective policy advocate for disability rights,” Mary Lou Breslin, a colleague at DREDF, wrote in an email. “She helped change the architectural face of the nation, making it more accessible for disabled people. She also fought long and hard for access to public transportation, helping shape laws and regulations that have had a profound impact on every transit system in the country.”
In her transportation work, Ms. Golden sought to make bus and rail transit, air travel and ride-hailing services fully accessible to people with disabilities.
“She was very good at getting people to understand what discrimination meant for the lives of people with disabilities,” said John Wodatch, a chief negotiator of the ADA who later oversaw its enforcement as head of the Justice Department’s disability rights section.
For example, Wodatch said, if a city transit system provided special buses for the exclusive use of disabled people, rather than also making other buses accessible to them, disabled riders would face long wait times, making it difficult or impossible for them to arrive at work on time.
“She made [critics of the ADA] understand what second-class status as a person with disabilities in our country was like because of the barriers that existed in our transportation systems, in our education systems, in the buildings that we were creating,” Wodatch added.
As an advocate, Ms. Golden was “fierce and tenacious, and she was also charming and disarming,” said Chai Feldblum, who worked on the passage of the ADA as a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union and later served on the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“Nobody handed out civil rights laws on a silver platter,” DREDF quoted Ms. Golden as saying. “The disability movement worked very hard to attain these mandates, including through direct action –
blocking buses all through the ’80s – and civil disobedience. We have to persuade business-friendly legislatures that the civil rights of people who are often segregated and excluded from society are important enough to make them a requirement.”
Marilyn Golden was born in San Antonio on March 22, 1954. Her father owned a restaurant and later a currency exchange, and her mother was a homemaker.
After her accident in Switzerland, Ms. Golden completed her bachelor’s degree in sociology at Brandeis University, graduating in 1977. Shortly thereafter, at age 25, she became director of the Oakland-based Access California, an organization that, among other efforts, sought to improve building accessibility. She remained there until she was hired at DREDF.
Ms. Golden witnessed enormous improvements in services for disabled people over the course of her life.
“Before the ADA, outside California and a smattering of cities elsewhere, city buses were simply not accessible to wheelchair users,” she said in an interview that appeared in June in the publication Jewish Currents. “Now they are, across the country. There were no announcements of bus stops, which particularly aid blind people, nor was there bus-stop signage giving the upcoming stops, which particularly aids deaf and hard-of-hearing people.”
“But serious problems remain,” she added, “particularly around enforcement.”
After the passage of the ADA, Ms. Golden devoted herself to its implementation, providing guidance and training and assisting the Justice Department in enforcement. She was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve on the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency established to promote equality for disabled people, and was recognized by the Obama administration as a “Champion of Change” for transportation.
She also pursued disability rights abroad and, in recent years, emerged as an opponent of physician-assisted suicide, which she saw as a threat particularly to the disabled community.
“Because the public image of disability is as a fate worse than death, and because a disability can indeed bring about misery because of the lack of good support services our societies have unfortunately become fertile ground for the forwarding of these laws,” she said in a 2008 speech. “Many have argued that these laws play directly into the economic pressures of the health-care system to relieve itself of its most expensive patients, and this can hardly be more true anywhere than in the United States.”
Besides Cooper, Ms. Golden’s companion of 25 years, of Berkeley, Ms. Golden’s survivors include two stepchildren, Talia Cooper of Oakland and Lev Hirschhorn of Philadelphia.
For all her accomplishments in the policy realm, Ms. Golden was also admired among her friends for her personal achievements.
“When an adult acquires a disability, as I did, it’s all too easy to take on prejudiced social attitudes toward disability – like the idea that people with disabilities must have miserable, unbearable lives –
and apply these ideas to ourselves,” she said in the interview earlier this year. “I worried I wouldn’t be able to do things that bring me joy, like hiking, or that my disability would get in the way of relationships. But after about a year, I realized my fears were wrong. I had great friends, I could get out into nature, I could do important and fulfilling work. I could enjoy my life perfectly well.”