In May, New York City honors one of the pioneers of the disability rights movement.
By Amy Meisner-Threet
Most people involved in the disability rights movement since the 1970s know the name Frieda Zames—not just in New York, where Zames lived all of her life, or even the United States, but all over the world. She was not large in stature, but her spirit and influence were huge.
I did not have the privilege of knowing Frieda in life, but I have heard her name since I entered the disability community. I spoke at length with her partner of 32 years, Michael Imperiale, her sister and co-author Doris, and her friend and comrade in the disability rights movement Anne Emeran, and I received some auxiliary information from Carr Massi, former president of Disabled in Action, the organization Zames helped found.
On Saturday, May 2, 2009, from noon to 3 p.m., the south east corner of East 4th Street and 1st Avenue in New York City’s East Village will be dedicated to and named for Frieda Zames. There will be a continued ceremony and celebration with speakers in the nearby housing complex where she lived, The Village View, which anyone can attend. This event was organized by Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who represents the neighborhood.
Frieda died on June 16, 2005. According to her sister Doris, “She died peacefully at 72 in the arms of her longtime companion, Michael Imperiale. Her last words to him were ‘I love you.’” Doris was Frieda’s younger sister by four and a half years and her only sibling. Although she is nondisabled (Frieda preferred that term to “able bodied”), Doris says Frieda was her role model. She says, “I saw the world through her eyes. She was compelling. She and
I would complete each other’s sentences.” Doris says that Frieda was diagnosed with polio at the age of two and a half at the height of the Depression. Frieda lived in a hospital in an iron lung and was then moved to a convalescent home. Although the family wanted to bring Frieda home, they were financially not able to provide the care she needed. They did visit her regularly, and from the age of 10, Frieda began sporadically to come home, finally moving back permanently at 13. Doris describes their household as Eastern European Jewish, working class and very political.
Frieda had not received the best education while hospitalized, but she flourished in school from the age of 13 on, particularly in math. She used crutches and braces to get around at that point, switching to a scooter many years later. Despite her apparent difficulties, she enjoyed life and “lived every bit of it,” her sister says. She attended Brooklyn College and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude. After college she was the the one who supported the family. She attended New York University (NYU), earning a PhD in Mathematical Sciences and worked at Met Life. She felt stifled there and institutionalized. Fortunately, she found the perfect match at the New Jersey Institute of Technology where she ended up teaching for 27 years. It seemed that she was born to teach and she taught people to love math. Doris wanted to make it clear that she also loved music, literature, and history.
According to Carr Massi, “Frieda was very strong and not afraid of speaking for her cause.” Even while in college she worked to make the campus more accessible, which it is today.” She and her friend Anne Emerman, who refers to Frieda as “ the first woman of the disability rights movement in New York City,” were among those who challenged the 1972 Rehab Act ( Section 504), considered to be the first civil rights law that prohibits any entity that receives government funding from discriminating on the basis of disability. Frieda was lengendary for challenging the law in protests regarding inaccessible transportation. Michael Imperiale, disabled by dystonia at the age of 6, was often Frieda’s companion for these rallies. He stated that when confronted by the police she would say, “Do your job as a cop, because I’m doing mine as an activist.”
Frieda and Michael met at The New York Philanthropic League for Crippled Children (clearly a name that would not be PC today). They smiled at each other in passing, and Michael says he never forgot that smile. Twenty-five years later they met again, started “courting” and Michael left his wife of three years and moved out. Frieda backed causes from the women’s movement to racial equality, but disability issues were her passion, Michael says. He said she also had a contagious sense of humor “that could make everybody laugh.”
“I loved Frieda very much, and she loved me and we looked forward to a long life together.” Michael continues to be involved in disability politics.
It’s clear that Frieda had touched many in her eventful life. “People all over the world knew Frieda Zames,” Michael Imperiare says. “All over the world she had people who respected her.”
As a disabled person, I am grateful for all the changes that have ocurred due to this one person. Her legacy indeed lives on.
Amy Meisner-Threet writes frequently for Action.