Lynda Steele advocated over four decades for the rights of persons with developmental disabilities, shepherding a movement that took people out of institutions and integrated them into the mainstream society. On Feb. 29, the former head of Palo Alto nonprofit Abilities United died suddenly, officials from the organization said in a statement.
The cause of death was not disclosed.
Steele, who was at the forefront of disabilities-rights advocacy in her native England and in the U.S., was the executive director of Palo Alto's Abilities United for 21 years until her retirement in 2014. Under her stewardship, the organization more than doubled its budget, from $2.9 million to $6 million, and the number of clients grew to more than 3,000 annually.
Innovative programs were developed under Steele's leadership, including employment services; independent-living training; the Community Connections program, which offered volunteer opportunities and an education series on daily-living skills; a therapy clinic offering speech, occupational, physical therapy and developmental services for children up to the age of 8; Milestones Preschool, an inclusive preschool for children 2 to 5 years old; and an art program offering classes and exhibits that sells clients' artwork throughout the Bay Area and through online galleries.
"Lynda left an indelible mark on Abilities United and the general community. She believed in a barrier-free society and dedicated her 40-year career and retirement to developing high quality community services for people with developmental disabilities as an alternative to institutional care," Board President David Kabakov and CEO Charlie Weidanz said in a statement. "She will always be remembered for her passion and compassion for all people, and her belief that all individuals make a vital contribution to the world.
"During her retirement, Lynda continued her advocacy for the rights of people with developmental disabilities through her volunteer work. Her legacy speaks to a life well lived and dedicated to serving others."
Steele grew up poor and homeless in England, but the values of her parents, community and education led to a career in social services, she once said.
"At college I read a quote that has stayed with me: One measure of a society's civilization is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens," she said during her retirement speech.
Her professional career began when the majority of developmentally disabled persons were institutionalized under horrendous conditions, she told the Weekly in 2014.
As a young social worker in the United Kingdom, she interned at a state institution. The experience radicalized her, she said.
"Those places were like something in Dickens. I was so horrified at the conditions and what I saw. People were in beds 6 inches apart. They were chained to the beds, and they were medicated up the yin yang. They did medical experiments on some patients without their permission. All of their rights were violated as human beings. They were being treated like animals. I thought, 'How can you possibly treat other human beings this way?'"
In the early 1970s, hospital conditions were being exposed by the media in the U.K. and in the U.S. Steele and others lobbied hard for closure of such hospitals, but they also worked to develop a closure strategy and long-term funding for alternatives.
Steele helped 350 people transition from institutions to living in the community. The formerly institutionalized patients made a remarkable transition once out of the institutions. People who were labeled with major behavioral problems began to thrive, she said.
"They began to talk to people again. By creating these alternatives, even though people had these labels on them, we found they just weren't true," Steele said.
Relocating to California in 1973, Steele became a rehabilitation counselor for a work program and then coordinated developmental disabilities programs in San Mateo County. During her tenure there, she became familiar with Community Association for Rehabilitation (CAR), the previous name for Abilities United.
"It always lived its mission. They really did good stuff all of the time," she said.
Steele worked as program director at CAR for three years in the 1980s prior to becoming acting executive director and then taking on the role officially.
In between these roles, she returned to England in 1983 to close the first institution there. Parliament had voted to shut the hospitals and created a 10-year funding program to transition to community-based programs. Steele was instrumental in developing the transitional programs. She stayed for six years.
"I couldn't pass that job up," she said.
Services at Abilities United that take people from infancy to independence have created the biggest changes in how developmentally disabled people see themselves, Steele said in 2014.
"We are now serving people who are speaking out for themselves. ... That's huge for me. It is so satisfying. It's so powerful, the human spirit part of it. Overcoming their challenges and getting to be where they want to be. Every day is like that. You see somebody changing their life," she said.