As an advocate for the disabled for more than 30 years whose passionate commitment to independent living has taken him from board rooms to the halls of Congress, Bob Michaels has lived on both sides of disability.
When he served as Executive Director for Arizona Bridge for Independent Living (ABIL) from 1984 to 1991 and in the same role with the Philadelphia-based Liberty Resources, a Center for Independent Living, from 1991 to 1995, he advocated for those with disabilities, but was not affected by one.
Today, at 67, he is.
“I didn’t have a disability when I first started out,” Michaels said. “I developed it later on. I never thought I had one.”
Michaels, who lives in Tempe, has Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 1 (SCA-1), a brain disorder affecting coordination, primarily of fingers, hands, arms, speech and eye movement, and most often a result from damage to or atrophy of the cerebellum, the part of the brain controlling coordination of movement.
But with or without SCA-1, Michaels has always been driven to stand up for those who can’t, both literally and figuratively.
“I think that advocating for the disabled community was just always part of me,” he said. “I grew up and was raised believing that you always assist people with the greatest need. That’s what a person is supposed to do. This was the perfect job for me.”
And, certainly for the thousands of men, women and children his efforts have benefitted over the years. For those contributions, Michaels received the 2014 Spirit of ABIL Award on March 24.
“Bob’s style as an advocate is to motivate consumers to participate in public policy advocacy,” said Amina Kruk of ABIL who nominated Michaels for the award. “He makes a difference by training others, believing in the power of individual action and encouraging teamwork, but he does not hesitate to challenge decision makers, policies and programs that fail to promote advocacy and true independence for persons who have disabilities.”
Michaels, who may be better known on a national scale than in Arizona, has worked in the field of independent living and disability since 1972 as a private consultant and trainer for the National Council on Independent Living as well as to centers for disability living.
He also has turned his disability blog into a book, Strong Medicine…A Roadmap for Creating or Improving Your Independent Living Program.
“It’s really a field manual for those who want to start an independent living program,” Michaels said, adding that if he had one message to deliver it would be that “people can live independently. They don’t need to move into institutions. They can live on their own. Everyone should strive to be as free as they can.”
Now fully retired, Michaels is where he wants to be: Arizona.
“I lived in Pennsylvania originally and moved to Arizona in 1975. When we first lived here, I used to tell people all the time that I lived in Arizona but I was really from Pennsylvania,” he said. “When I moved back to Pennsylvania, I realized something. I told people there that I live in Pennsylvania, but I’m really an Arizonan. And that’s how it really is.”