IL Pioneer: Max Starkloff

A pioneer of the Independent Living and Disability Rights movements, Max Starkloff, was responsible for many important changes in disability rights in St. Louis. fueled by powerful self-motivation and inspired by the work of Ed Roberts, Starkloff laid the groundwork for change on a larger scale.

Paralyzed at the age of 21 in a car accident, Max lived with his mother for four years; however, the financial strain became too great and he was forced to move, like others with severe disabilities at the time, into a nursing home.  He stayed in this nursing facility, St. Joeseph’s, for twelve years, becoming increasingly frustrated from the doctors controlling and diagnosing him as ‘dependent,’ frustrated by them labeling him by his disability, and frustrated by the attitude of society in which he lived.

During this time, Max held on to hope and found a way to escape his confinement: painting. Max honed his artistic skill and felt that is was a way of imagining new possibilities; it became a source of satisfaction for him.  He was angered, however, by the paternalistic attitude that many had in regards to his art, he was lauded with praise and encouraged to keep painting, but then professionals informed him that he was pretty good, for an amateur.

In 1970, Starkloff attended a rally in California led by Ed Roberts.  Here, he saw a group of people, who were also quadriplegic, being active and living independently.  They were engaged in activities in their school and were working to eliminate barriers that would otherwise hold them back.  This was exactly what Max needed to see, people with disabilities in control of their lives and deciding on the issues that affected them.  Max took this inspiration back with him to St. Lois where he was determined to open a center similar to the one in Berkeley, California.

When Max got out of the nursing home he married the woman he was engaged to, who just happened to be a physical therapist at St. Joseph’s. After becoming married, Max and his wife began Paraquad, a Center for Independent Living, advocating for the removal of physical and societal barriers so people with disabilities would have full access to their community.  Max also worked to found the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) 1983. In 2003, the Starkloffs opened the Starkloff Disability Institute, a non-profit geared at changing public perceptions of disability, and advocating for the full involvement of people with disabilities in society.  They accomplish this through a combination of education and direct action.

Sadly, Max Starkloff died in December of 2010 from complications from the flu. His legacy will live on in the form of the organizations that he helped found and the lives that he changed with his tireless advocacy.

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