Duane French

“I hope in my lifetime I’ve done something to break through the prejudice and the discrimination that hold back far too many people. To that extent if people say I’m an inspiration, I’m OK with that.”

- Duane French

duane french

French talks with well-wishers outside the State Capitol in 2008 when he rallied opposition to Initiative 1000, the “Death with Dignity” proposal. Thomas James Hurst, The Seattle Times

Left: Duane in 1985 joins Access Alaska, a private nonprofit dedicated to helping the disabled. Alaska Dispatch News

Middle: Bob and Peg French with their six kids. Duane is at top right, two years before his accident. French family collection

Right: Justin Dart, a leading disabilities rights activist, and French strategize outside the White House in 1990 during the campaign for the ADA. French family collection

Who is he?

Duane French was a happy-go-lucky Nebraska teenager in 1968. Then he dove into a shallow river and emerged a quadriplegic. On that day, French became a member of the world’s largest minority: an estimated one billion people who now live with disabilities. Sometimes he just wanted to die. His loving family and inspirational teachers rescued him from despair.

French graduated from college and became a charismatic counselor. In the 1990s he directed a major vocational rehabilitation program in Anchorage. He volunteered on the front lines of the battle to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. Twice forcefully removed from the halls of Congress, French spent a night in jail. It was well worth it. French was at the White House on July 26, 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed the landmark bill into law.

With the actor Christopher Reeve, French became an inaugural inductee in the Spinal Cord Injury Hall of Fame in 2005, recognizing his work to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. French is now the director of disability services for the Washington State Department of Social & Health Services. He oversees a $53 million budget and more than 300 people.