Deborah Cunningham, 1945-2015

From the July-August 2015 issue of News & Letters

Memphis Center for Independent Living Executive Director Deborah Cunningham

Memphis Center for Independent Living Executive Director Deborah Cunningham

Deborah Cunningham was an ADAPT activist and Executive Director of the Memphis Center for Independent Living (MCIL). When she died on May 7, the movement lost a tireless, creative, committed activist, feminist and thinker. She worked with and for MCIL since its inception in 1982 and became Executive Director in 1989.

DISABILITY UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

Tim Wheat, a photographer and longtime disability rights activist, wrote of Deborah:

“Before there was any home and community options in Tennessee, Deborah was the ‘conductor’ of the Disability Underground Railroad that moved people with disabilities from institutionalization into their own homes…”

“There’s not one person in the whole of Tennessee who has been freed from a nursing home or saved from entering one who does not owe their freedom, in no small part, to Deborah Cunningham,” said MCIL board member Louis Patrick. “There’s not an accessible movie theater space in Memphis and its environs that Deborah, an avid movie fan, did not lobby hard for. Ditto the spaces, concessions and restrooms at the Liberty Bowl are substantially the result of Deborah’s efforts.”

News and Letters Committees worked with ADAPT, MCIL and Deborah for many years. One particular event stands out. Deborah and friend Renee, both in ADAPT, were waiting for a bus and one came by with a wheelchair lift, but instead of stopping to pick them up, the driver “braked, then pulled off. He refused to stop. The bus wasn’t crowded, he just didn’t want to pick us up,” Deborah and Renee wrote in the Aug.-Sept. 2002 issue of News & Letters.

Deborah Cunningham blocking a police car 2002

Deborah Cunningham blocking a police car 2002. Photo by Terry Moon for News & Letters.

They started calling the Transit Authority to get a ride back to work. They called everyone they could think of, including the manager and president of MATA (Memphis Area Transit Authority). They either got no responses or had their calls transferred to another line with no response.

Another wheelchair-accessible bus came by, but picked up someone across the street, and left them. Then, “We saw a mainline bus coming and decided to block it… Then a MATAplus bus did pull up…When we started towards it, the driver of the bus we were blocking took off, and so did the MATAplus bus. So we decided to block the van of a MATA supervisor who came out here. The police are here,” they wrote, “but MATA is not going to prosecute us for blocking their bus because they know that they’re in the wrong and totally incompetent.”

Deborah and Renee had been out in the 90+ degree Memphis sun for hours but did not budge until MATA sent a bus to pick them up and take them home. Then Deborah continued to pressure MATA to decently serve those with disabilities.

I loved working with Deborah. She was committed to human rights and freedom and she brought a new dimension to the struggle for both women’s and disability rights because in her mind and actions, they were never separate. We are all diminished when someone like Deborah dies. We will always miss her militant voice and being.

—Terry Moon

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