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Frieda Zames

Frieda Zames

New York Able
August 2005
By Beth Guarino

Frieda Zames, Tireless Advocate, Dies

The disability community lost a powerful force and a devoted friend when prominent advocate Frieda Zames lost her life at age 72, two weeks after an appendectomy.

As she slept after a day full of activity, Frieda Zames "slipped peacefully from this world," according to long-time friend Anne Emerman, who said that Zames last words were addressed to Michael Imperiale, her companion of 34 years. "I love you,'" she told him.

Zames was "the most caring tender person I ever met," said her sister Doris Fleischer, "she maintained her sweetness, generosity and kindness toward others," despite all the difficulties she had lived through.

After Zames had polio at age 2 1/2, she was institutionalized for many years. For a good part of her life she used crutches and braces to ambulate, but in her later years she used a motorized scooter. She had commented on the change in locomotion methods. "When I was on crutches I was always afraid someone would bump into me and knock me over. Now it's the other way around. This suits me better," she said according to Fleischer.

Zames was born in Brooklyn and endured many surgeries in her childhood. Her early education was mostly self-taught because of long institutionalization, and the school system of that era automatically placed disabled students in special education, where they learned little. "She read her way through special ed," said Fleischer. In Lafayette High School Zames took Latin, which was an elective in public schools then.

She earned her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Brooklyn College, graduating with honors. She was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. "Her mother went to Brooklyn College with her every day, carrying her books," said Emerman. She went to work for Met Life for 12 years, supporting her family when her father had a heart attack and her mother was earning a minimal salary. Zames got her doctorate degree in mathematics from New York University and won an award for a paper she wrote on mathematical paradox. She then went to work for New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), whose buildings she helped to make accessible. She taught all courses there, from remedial to graduate classes. She also ran a summer program there to bring students with disabilities into the student body. She was associate professor of mathematics emeritus at NJIT when she retired.

Because of her early struggles, Zames identified with and embraced civil rights struggles of every kind. Women's rights, racial rights, "they were all the same to her," said Fleischer. Zames also marched in gay pride parades.

Zames first activist action came in the 1970s when she and others blocked a bus they were unable to ride because it lacked a lift. Due to her activism, buses that run in the city now have lifts. When she first went to Disabled in Action (DIA) meetings Fleischer said, "She sat in the back of the room until she learned what was going on." Zames was later president of DIA many times during her decades-long association with them and the originator of the "one step" campaign which forced businesses into compliance with access laws. At the time of her death she was first vice-president of DIA. She was a board member of the New York State Independent Living Coalition, radio station WBAI and of Disabilities Network of New York City.

In 2001, Zames co-authored a book with Fleischer, The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation. The comprehensive work is a history of the disability rights movement. In 2003, Zames received the Eileen Healy Public Service Award. She penned essays on disability issues and was a columnist for Able News, writing the "DIA Speaks" column.

"She wanted to make the world accessible for everyone," said her friend of 60 years, Robert Levine. He noted that she had sued the Empire State Building to force them to create access and won.

Shortly before her death, she was working on a city council bill for accessible ferries and taxicabs; at a recent council meeting there was talk of naming a bill for her.

Fleischer said she would most like people to remember that her sister "came out of an institution, not bitter, not cold, but loving. She combined sweetness and tenderness, yet she was tough-hearted; She had to fight for everything."

Copyright © Able Newspaper. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


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