WASHINGTON – Michael Winter, an advocate and activist for disability rights who in 1990 abandoned his wheelchair and crawled up the steps of the U.S. Capitol to demonstrate for the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and who later worked to enforce it as a federal officer, died July 11 at his home in Arlington County, Va. He was 61.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said a friend, Geraldine Adams.

Since 1994, Winter had held a variety of offices at the Transportation Department relating to civil rights and accessible accommodations for disabled people. He also was a key adviser to Norman Y. Mineta, the transportation secretary from 2001 to 2006.

“We had a father-son relationship. I was the son. He was the father because he knew so much,” said Mineta, a former Democratic congressman from California.

Michael Alex Winter was born Sept. 7, 1951, in Chicago with a condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta, which causes extremely fragile bones, and he would use a wheelchair all his life. Two of his brothers and a sister had the same disability.

He attended a high school where every student had a disability. In a 2007 interview with Independence Today news, he described the school as a “big babysitting service” where “the environment was condescending.”

During his freshman year, he joined his first protest demonstration, a lunch strike against the “institutional food” served in the school cafeteria.

At Southern Illinois University, where he graduated in 1974, Winter and other disabled students took over the president’s office and chained a wheelchair to his desk to dramatize their demand for accessible transportation.

Many of the students had chosen Southern Illinois because the president’s wife was disabled and used a wheelchair, and the university had made a public commitment to providing services for the disabled. “The university, to its great credit, made improvements,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said in remarks entered into the Congressional Record after Winter’s death.

After college, Winter was director in Honolulu and then in Berkeley, Calif., of the Centers for Independent Living, facilities providing a variety of services and programs for disabled people. He also traveled extensively as an advocate for the disabilities rights movement. He became president of the National Council on Independent Living.

In the interview with Independence Today, Winter said his disability “isn’t all of Michael Winter. I’m a father, a son, a civil rights activist, a director of an agency in the federal bureaucracy. … I’m a Chicago Cubs fan … a Bears fan.”

Survivors include his wife of 29 years, Atsuko Kuwana, and their son, Taka Winter-Kuwana, both of Arlington.

In 2011, Winter was interviewed for the PBS documentary “Lives Worth Living,” which examined the disability rights movement in the United States. The documentary retold the events of the day in 1990 when hundreds of disabled people, Winter among them, climbed and crawled up the steps of the Capitol to protest the slow progress toward enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which broadened civil rights already protected in earlier legislation.

When they gathered in the Capitol Rotunda, they were approached by a guide expecting to take them on a tour of the building.

“I have to tell you something,” Winter told her. “I don’t think these people are here for a tour.”


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