Barb Trader Reflects on a Lifetime of Accomplishment in Disability Rights

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Season 1, Episode 11 — 30 June 2016

About this episode

Barb Trader retired this month after ten years as the Executive Director of TASH. She has spent a lifetime thinking about and working for the betterment of the lives of people with disabilities. Her time at TASH was the culmination of a 40-year career in disability rights. We talk with her about the accomplishments she’s seen and contributed to, what she’s learned in 40 years of service and the tasks that remain.

About the presenters

A tight-in black-and-white portrait of Barb Trader. She has piercing eyes and an enigmatic half-smile. Her hair is angled off her forehead and she is wearing a dark, open- collared shirt.Barb Trader was the Executive Director of TASH from 2006 until her retirement this month.

Barb was in direct service as a recreation therapist for 17 years in parks and recreation, public schools, and non-profit agencies. An activist by nature, she facilitated the inclusion of athletes with disabilities in the Georgia State Games and formed a wheelchair division for the Peachtree Road Race, the first major race in the country to include wheelchair users, serving as race director the first 10 years. The 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games were the first to be held in the United States as a part of the overall Olympic celebration, due in part to a grassroots effort led by Barb and local ADAPT leaders that gathered 40,000 signatures in less than 10 days. She was a founding board member for the Paralympic Organizing Committee and an integral part of the bid process and served as the vice president for youth and community programs. She has authored and launched several national programs, including Paralympic Day in the Schools and Express Diversity!, both aimed at helping school-aged youth understand that disability is a natural life experience. Prior to TASH, she worked in program development and director roles for the national headquarters’ offices of VSA arts and Easter Seals.

A portrait of Donald Taylor, a man with a medium smile and a mob of curly dark hair in a black collared shirt against a pattern of a blue pained wrought-iron gateDonald Taylor is the Membership Manager at TASH and the producer of Amplified.



Announcer: You’re listening to TASH Amplified, a podcast that seeks to transform research and experience concerning inclusion and equity for people with disabilities into solutions people can use in their everyday lives.

Today we’re talking with Barb Trader, who retired on June 14th after ten years and two days as Executive Director of TASH. Her time at TASH was the culmination of a 40-year career in disability rights. We talk with her about the accomplishments she’s seen and contributed to in her time, what she’s learned in 40 years of service and the tasks that remain.

Donald Taylor: Barb Trader, where were you born and what was your childhood like?

Barb Trader: Oh my goodness! I was born in Burlington Wisconsin in 1954.

Donald Taylor: You don’t have to tell us that part.

Barb Trader: Okay. I was born in Burlington Wisconsin, which is in the southeastern corner of the state, or just North of that or about thirty miles outside of Milwaukee and I grew up and was raised on a farm. My childhood was really spent outside. Wisconsin gets cold in the winter, but me and my brothers and sisters spent as much time outside as possible. I kind of fell in love with the outdoors and being a country girl. I’m old enough to have had that experience of going to a one room schoolhouse. That schoolhouse has long since been torn down. You can still see evidence of country schools all over the state of Wisconsin. So it was a pretty idyllic, quiet life.

Donald Taylor: And you’ve worked in the disability field for your entire career. What caused you to dedicate your life to helping people with disabilities?

Barb Trader: You know, I never even thought about that until Justin Dart asked me to same question in the 90’s. And I was fifteen years into my career by then.

But I think what caused my interest in the disability field overall was growing up with my aunt who was very much part of our family and had been born with significant developmental disability in 1917. She had never lived in an institution, my grandparents raised her, and although she was completely dependent on my grandmother and never spoke — at least that I was aware of — she had a really good life.

My aunt was the only person with a disability I ever knew before I went to college. I never met another person with a disability; people with disabilities were not out in public; they weren’t in our public schools; I had no access to any other families that have people with disabilities, so what I chose to do as a kid living in the country with not much else to do during the winter was read a lot. So I read lots of books about people with disabilities and found myself kind of immersed, and wanting to know more. So when I had a choice about where to go to college I decided that I wanted to become a recreation therapist and work with people with disabilities and that was my first career choice.

Donald Taylor: Do you remember any of the books that you read around that time? What sort of stuff was available if people disabilities were so non-visible?

Barb Trader: Well you know I just happened to stumble across a book named Karen and it was by a woman named Marie Killilea. I was remembering this a couple of years ago, so I reordered it. It’s out of print now but you can get it through Amazon. Karen is the true story written by the mother of a young girl — she was nine years old when the book was written, and I was nine years old when I read it — so it really impacted me. It was about this little girl with pretty significant cerebral palsy who couldn’t go to public school, and her mother told such compelling stories about her growing up years. I think the book took place from the time she was nine until she was twelve. And they would get kicked out of restaurants by restaurant owners who didn’t want to expose the rest of their customers to that person with a disability and they weren’t allowed in a lot of other public places. The relationship she had with the pediatrician was a warm relationship but it wasn’t a relationship that encouraged the parents to have really high expectations. And then she wrote a sequel called With Love from Karen and in that book there was — it had a lot to do with the decision to use crutches or not, which when I became a professional, that decision for young people who were not mobile, and either depended on crutches or a wheelchair, that was still a big debate and, you know, it’s interesting now that there is such a strong expectation for self-determination for young people with disabilities: that doesn’t seem to be much of a debate anymore at all. People always want to be more functional than they want to act “able”.

Donald Taylor: How close by did your grandparents and your aunt live when you were growing up? How much time did you spend with them?

Barb Trader: Well there were about twenty to thirty minutes away and that was our Sunday habit: was to go visit grandma and grandpa and on occasion, my aunt and uncle, and my other aunt and uncle and their family came with Grandma and Grandpa to our farm. So that was pretty much our social life — was spending time with our extended family. So I saw her very routinely.

Donald Taylor: When you first started out, what was the state of thinking about how people with disabilities should be included in society, and what were the things that you perceived as needing to change the most at that time?

Barb Trader: I don’t think there was much focus at all back in the first several years of the mid-seventies on inclusion. Ironically I went to the University of Wisconsin, which was when Lou Brown was at the University of Wisconsin, but I wasn’t a special education major: I was in a whole different college, so I never met him and I never heard about TASH. My focus and the way I was trained was to focus on improving function. It didn’t take me long to realize that wasn’t my interest. I met lots of people with disabilities in my first couple of years as a professional, who had no idea what to do with their free time — and all they had was free time. So my real high-priority focus was to help people learn self-expression, how to arrange things that they really enjoy doing, how to kind of explore who they were as people through the way they spend their free time. I thought that was much more important than improving function.

Donald Taylor: What did the formal education consist of in recreation therapy in the seventies?

Barb Trader: Well, it was a brand new, developing field. My major professor had been a recreation therapist for veterans coming out of World War II. He worked in the V.A. hospitals and so that kind of gives you a window into why he was focused on improving function. I was a lot more interested in how to use leisure time and what leisure meant to us, and what do we mean by re-creating ourselves, and found that to be more relevant to the people with disabilities I was meeting.

Donald Taylor: So, I mean, it sounds like you’re saying that a lot of your change in career thinking at this time came from talking with people with disabilities themselves. What were they telling you at this time about what they wanted, versus what their experience of society at large and the systems were like?

Barb Trader: Well, another great question. I happened to write a CEDA grant and my first — I was twenty-three years old and I got this CEDA grant — so I hired twelve people and two of those people were quadriplegics that recently acquired an injury and they were working for me and they told me that what they really wanted to do was to learn how to do things again that they had previously enjoyed doing, or to just do things that other people in their family or in their community were doing so they could participate. So we did things like fishing, and swimming, and sports, and camping. That’s what I think people with acquired injury really wanted. And I think that’s still the same. For people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their parents were telling me what they wanted. And these people were coming out of institutions. I didn’t have that many people in programs — adults our children — who hadn’t been recently in some form of institution: either as a day program and go home at night because schools weren’t open to students with disabilities. Or they went and stayed in some state institution, and they were newly coming out. So those family members wanted things for those people to do so they would have a place to go.

Donald Taylor: You’ve worked in a lot of different capacities in the disability field before coming to TASH. Tell us about your work in disability rights prior to your directorship here.

Barb Trader: Well I started as a recreation therapist in a Parks and Recreation Department just south of Atlanta, Georgia. And I had a robust wheelchair sports program developing at Shepherd Center [<href=””>official website | <href=””>Wikipedia article] in Atlanta where I worked, which was for people with spinal cord injury and brain injury. We couldn’t get access to a basketball court. People would not allow us to use community-funded basketball courts because they thought able-bodied people should have priority. And that wheelchairs were going to damage the floor. And there are all kinds of other excuses.

Then we had problems with access: we would be ticketed to go to events in public facilities and they didn’t want people with disabilities to sit in the aisle. Well, they had no other place for a person with a wheelchair to sit so they had no provision and they did not want people to block the view of other ticketed customers. So, you know, those things seemed pretty offensive to me.

And then, I think what really pushed this over the edge is that we had real athletes developing from participation in wheelchair sports, they wanted to be part of competitive events. Atlanta is the home of the Peachtree Road Race [Website | Wikepedia article] which happens to be the largest ten kilometer foot race in the world, so we wanted a wheelchair division. We worked hard with the Atlanta Track Club [Official website|Wikipedia article] to create a wheelchair division. We negotiated with them for two years. They kept saying no, the target kept changing. You know, we’d solve a problem, they’d have another problem and we went on and on and on like that.

You know, there have been a lot of engaged advocacy for two years that hadn’t worked. So we took the litigation route, and that worked quickly. We didn’t win the case but since the injunction was filed two days before the race. And we named every sponsor including the Coca-Cola Company, the city of Atlanta, the Journal Constitution, which is the newspaper there. The judge told the Atlanta Track Club to get their act together before the next year. So that was really the first major race in the world that allowed a wheelchair division.

And then I was a race director for ten years so I had to work with people that I had recently sued, it was quite an experience.

Donald Taylor: So, did they allow people with disabilities the next year?

Barb Trader: Yes! Our first wheelchair division had four people, and within five years we had one hundred twenty racers from around the world. And I think it’s still one of the largest, if not the largest and most elite wheelchair races in the world.

Donald Taylor: What year was this lawsuit?

Barb Trader: Well, we did most of our advocacy in the late seventies and I believe by 1979 we had a wheelchair division.

Donald Taylor: So this is pre-Americans with Disabilities Act, pre-Olmstead: you had a lot less tools to work with back then. On what basis did you sue? Did it come to a decision or was a settled? And if so, on what basis was it decided?

Barb Trader: So we sued based on section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act which requires pragmatic and physical access for anything that happens in a facility created by federal funds. And so there we were, on a federally funded road in the city of Atlanta. So we felt like we had a pretty clear-cut case. We sued in federal court two days before the race, so instead of granting an injunction like we asked — because the city was filled with people who wanted to run the race — the judge just directed the track club and the sponsors to solve the problem before the next year. And there was a finding that it was something that had to be changed. So there was impact for the road races. It really did cause a — I would say a — domino effect around the world.

Donald Taylor: So what sort of excuses did the race committee give, and how did you work through each one?

Barb Trader: I think it was — at first I think they were legitimately worried about safety. They could not wrap their minds around how could a person in a wheelchair and people running on foot run on the same crowded street without hurting each other? And so that was pretty legitimate we thought, so we recommended that the wheelchair racers started earlier than the foot racers — which is a typical solution now — that’s what you see around the country. And wheelchair are faster than people on foot.

Back then, wheelchair road racers used pretty typical wheelchairs. Now you see terrific technology. Actually wheelchair sports has driven technology for wheelchairs and for other mobility devices such as people who use prosthetics for running. So safety was a real concern. We provided lots of legitimate solutions for safety and at the end of the day, after two, two and a half years it just seemed like stalling techniques. We couldn’t figure out any other way to address their concerns. And I think part of it was just the unknown. But being faced with “no” instead of “let’s try” is a whole different story.

Announcer: You’ve been listening to TASH Amplified. For more about the series, including show notes, links to articles discussed, a complete transcript and past episodes, visit You can subscribe through iTunes or your favorite Android podcast app to have the series delivered automatically to your device so you never miss an episode. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please share it with your friends and on your social networks.

Today we spoke with outgoing Executive Director Barb Trader. Follow Amplified for our future episode in which we will introduce our new and equally richly experienced executive director, Ruthie-Marie Beckwith.

TASH is a values and research-based advocacy association located in Washington, D.C., with local chapters coving 18 states. In 2015 we celebrated our 40th anniversary. We offer organization, advocacy, collaboration, scholarship and education for people with disabilities, researchers, educators, service providers and family members. In addition to this podcast series, we offer a scholarly quarterly, Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, a popular magazine, Connections, a series of conferences. You can learn more about TASH at You can receive updates from TASH on this podcast and our other activities by following us on Facebook or on twitter at @TASHtweet.

This has been a sample of the colleagues and conversations available through TASH. It is only because of the excellent work that our members do that we can bring you this information. For more resources such as this and to become a member, visit

We’ll hear from another outstanding advocate again in two weeks.

This interview was originally recorded on 12 June 2016.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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