First Lady of Independent Living
ANN FORD July 26, 1941-Sept. 23, 2018
First Lady of Independent Living
If you ever wanted to find Ann Ford, chances are you could find her scooting around the Capitol. Ford, who had contracted polio at the age of 5, used a scooter to get around, but that never stopped her from advocating for the disabled, from attending live music events and concerts, or from meeting up with friends and family. Through adversity in her personal and professional life, she never gave up in her passion to help others.
As the executive director of the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living (INCIL), Ford became the tenacious advocate for hundreds of people. Friends and co-workers called her “fierce” in her pursuit of rights for the disabled and social justice issues. She testified in committee hearings at the Capitol in a direct, calm, yet emphatic way. She didn’t stop, and some say it was impossible to keep up with her as she wheeled herself from committee rooms to legislators’ offices.
She built a reputation as a coalition builder, working with legislators from both parties, advocacy groups and leaders in communities and agencies. Her goal was to engage others in the needs of the disabled.
That was how she believed in doing her work, which began with her first job working for the National Paraplegia Foundation in Chicago in 1967. In 1978 she moved to Massachusetts to serve the New England Spinal Cord Injury Association, and later returned to Illinois, where she became the first director for two Centers for Independent Living (CILs). In 1985 Ann launched and led the Peoria-based Central Illinois CIL, and in 1991 she started the DuPage CIL in Glen Ellyn. From 1999-2017, she served statewide as the first executive director of the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living.
At a memorial held in Springfield on Nov. 14, friends and family honored Ford. They described her as “unflappable, steady, caring, witty, kind and a treasure.” Ford was known for her “empathy, perseverance, courage and love of her job, her family, Springfield – and music.”
Ford could never say no to live music and attended concerts as often as possible. She was known to take her daughter, Erin, to concerts, starting when Erin was 10 years old. Co-workers often heard music pouring out of her office. It was her love.
Ford had limited use of one hand, but Ryan Croke, now the executive director of INCIL says, “Ann wrote great letters and speeches and you’d see her hammering them out with one hand. The really cool thing about Ann was that she really didn’t want pity – ever.”
Plaques honoring Ford, pictures of her with legislators and influential people (President Obama, Senator Durbin, etc.) filled her bookshelves and table tops. She received many awards for her advocacy, including most recently from the National Council on Independent Living in 2017. Ford was prominently featured in Lives Worth Living, a 2011 documentary about the long battle for disability rights in America.
Ford worked tirelessly to get the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signed into law. That happened on her birthday, July 26, 1990. Ford was in Washington, D.C., to witness President George H.W. Bush sign the ADA into law.
Justin Dart (1930-2002), known as the Godfather of the Americans with Disabilities Act, spoke about Ford when she was presented with the Justin Dart Award in 1997. He said, “Ann is a pioneer of disability rights and empowerment…she shows the characteristic of greatness like Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Martin Luther King …with her passionate dedication to the principles of inalienable rights and empowerment…through painful personal attacks…she just will not give up.”
On Jan. 31, 2017, life took a dramatic turn when Ford suffered a life-threatening stroke. She moved to her hometown of Indianapolis and lived with her sister, Judy, who called her “courageous” as she fought the effects of the stroke. As her younger sister, Shea, says, “Ann accepted the challenge of the stroke as she did all challenges she faced in her life, and she never complained.”
Those who knew Ford say she was a treasure and changed lives for many. One said Ford’s legacy “carries the fire.” And that gives inspiration for those still working for the rights of the disabled. “No matter how dark or hopeless, we must always carry the hope and never lose sight of the destination.”
Cinda Ackerman Klickna of Rochester did not know Ann Ford personally but often saw her at the Capitol.