AUBURN — Alice Conway was born with spina bifida and spent most of her childhood at Shriners Hospitals for Children and at Pine Tree Camp, a summer camp for children with disabilities.

But she overcame her extraordinary challenges, became a fierce advocate for people with disabilities and dedicated her life to helping others.

Ms. Conway, who died Saturday at age 51, was remembered by her friends and family Tuesday as a strong, independent and courageous woman and a champion of many causes who refused to let her disabilities prevent her from living a full and meaningful life.

Her longtime partner, Dean Conway, talked Tuesday about the struggles she faced and the life they shared with their son, Richard Conway.

He estimated that Ms. Conway spent six to eight months a year at Shriners Hospital and had more than 100 surgeries while growing up.

“She spent about 14 years of her life there,” he said. “She was very medically fragile, but she never let it slow her down.”

Dean Conway talked with admiration and pride at the way she carried herself throughout her life. He remembered the day back in 2004 when he told her that he found a wheelchair van. She got upset and hung up the phone on him, several times.

“She never saw herself as someone in a wheelchair,” he said. “She never saw herself as disabled. I knew she was fiercely independent, but I didn’t realize she didn’t see herself as someone with a disability.”

For many years, she lifted herself into her van to drive. Since the late 1980s, Ms. Conway had worked as an independent living specialist, helping people — many with disabilities — find solutions to problems in everyday life.

“She enjoyed helping people and making a difference in their lives,” her partner said. “She spent her free time trying to make a difference. It came from a place of caring and love.”

Ms. Conway’s own experiences with discrimination sparked her passion to change how people with disabilities are treated. When she encountered a problem, she dedicated herself to finding a solution to solve the larger problem.

For instance, when Ms. Conway experienced difficulty in Auburn’s public housing system, she joined the board of directors for Auburn Housing. When she had an unpleasant experience on an elevator, she joined Maine’s Elevator Board.

Ms. Conway also took an active role in improving the quality of care for patients in hospitals throughout the state. She also worked with hospitals in Massachusetts and Maine to establish the first latex-free hospital treatment protocols in both states.

Ms. Conway also took a stand against larger issues. In the mid-1990s, she sued United Air Lines, Inc., alleging disability discrimination.

“It really opened up the ability for people with disabilities to have recourse against airlines when they are treated improperly,” said Sharon Miller, a longtime friend and attorney who represented Ms. Conway in the case. “It was an incredibly brave and courageous thing for Alice to do. She knew how to get though bureaucracy to get the right things from people. She was so well-respected. She had every disadvantage, but she never let the challenges she had compromise her love for life.”

Ms. Conway also traveled annually to Washington to advocate for people with disabilities and work on children’s issues and public housing issues. She was well-respected by Sen. Olympia Snowe and former Gov. John Baldacci.

Ms. Conway also was remembered Tuesday as a woman who opened her home and her heart to many disadvantaged children.

“She was terribly poor, yet she took children into her home for extended periods of time,” Miller said. “She reached out to people who needed help. She would do absolutely anything for people that she cared about to help cheer them up and make their lives better.”

 

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at: [email protected]