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Charlie Sabatier; helped win access, respect for disabled

Mayor Raymond Flynn put Charles Sabatier (also in recent photo at right) in charge of the city's access effort in 1985. Mayor Raymond Flynn put Charles Sabatier (also in recent photo at right) in charge of the city's access effort in 1985. (Globe File)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / June 12, 2009
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A bullet severed Charlie Sabatier's spinal cord in 1968 as he crossed a battlefield in Vietnam to help another soldier on the first day of the Tet Offensive, and he navigated the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Four decades ago, he came home to intersections without sidewalk curb cuts, public buildings without elevators, and policies that set the disabled apart, sometimes in humiliating fashion. Mr. Sabatier made it his life work to change policies, physical structures, and the way people thought.

"My goal is equal citizenship," he told the Globe in 1988 as he prepared to step down as executive director of Boston's Commission for Persons with Disabilities. "Nothing less is acceptable. We're looking for equitable treatment, although not necessarily identical. A disabled person should have the same options as everybody else. I came within an inch of giving my life for this country. The idea of being denied equal opportunity because it might not be cost-effective is utterly reprehensible to me."

Mr. Sabatier, who helped get an elevator installed in Faneuil Hall and took a stand against degrading treatment on airlines, died of cancer yesterday in his Wellesley home. He was 63.

Raymond L. Flynn, who was mayor when he appointed Mr. Sabatier to head disability affairs, credited Mr. Sabatier's leadership with making Boston more accessible, including Faneuil Hall.

"Here you have the cradle of liberty, America's most historic building, but for people who were handicapped, there was no way of getting in there," Flynn said. "Charlie was able to work through the process and get it done. Because of him, the people's building really became the people's building, all the peoples' building."

As head of the city commission and more recently as senior policy adviser in the US Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, Mr. Sabatier worked to ensure that others would have a different experience than what he endured in the years after returning from Vietnam.

In Boston, he helped get dozens more curb cuts each year at intersections, pushed election officials to make polling places more accessible, and initiated studies to determine the cost of making each building used by city government accessible.

"I look at myself as a gunslinger," he told the Globe in July 1988, a couple of weeks before leaving the commission to attend law school. "I took this job with specific ideas of what I wanted to do, and I've done them. Now it's time to do something else."

Charles J. Sabatier Jr. grew up in Galveston, Texas, and was the first in his family to finish high school, said his wife, Peggy Griffin. His first attempt at college did not pan out, and he ended up in the US Army.

Stationed in Germany, he was later sent to Vietnam, where North Vietnamese forces launched an incursion in early 1968 that became known as the Tet Offensive. Mr. Sabatier was 22.

"He was shot on the first day of the Tet Offensive," Griffin said. "He went out to rescue a fellow soldier who had been shot, who was calling and calling for him. Just as he got to the young man, he was shot in the back. Ironically, it's what ended up changing his life in many positive ways."

First, though, came months of recuperation. Overcoming his initial embarrassment at having to use a wheelchair, he graduated from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1972 with a bachelor's degree in political science and became involved with the advocacy group Paralyzed Veterans of America.

While working in Washington, D.C., he met Griffin, who was there for an internship while attending Boston University. They married in May 1981 and lived in the Auburndale section of Newton.

Mr. Sabatier was assistant director of the state Office of Handicapped Affairs in March 1982 when he decided he would no longer abide by a Delta Airlines policy that passengers using wheelchairs must sit on a blanket, rather than just the seat. The airline said it was for swifter evacuation in case of an emergency, but Mr. Sabatier believed the policy was Delta's way of preventing damage if disabled passengers had difficulty controlling their bladders.

Arrested on a disorderly conduct charge for refusing to sit on the blanket, he made more headlines when he was arraigned in East Boston District Court, which was not accessible to wheelchairs. He refused the judge's offer to have court officers carry him upstairs into the courtroom, and was arraigned in the hallway.

Within a month, Delta dropped its policy of placing blankets under passengers who use wheelchairs and paid Mr. Sabatier $2,500 to avoid a lawsuit. The disorderly conduct charge was dropped.

After working with the city commission in the late 1980s, Mr. Sabatier went to California, where he graduated from the University of San Diego School of Law in 1992. During his first year at law school, his wife had triplets: Charles, Caroline, and Danielle.

"He always used to say he was the oldest disabled guy to have triplets the first year of law school and graduate on time," his wife said.

The family moved to Texas, where Mr. Sabatier worked on advocacy issues in the years after the federal Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted. In 1996, they settled in Wellesley, and Mr. Sabatier commuted to Washington for his job with the Labor Department, where part of his work involved veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"He knew how they thought; he knew the kind of information they would need and the sequence in which they would need it," said his boss, Susan B. Parker, director of policy development in the Labor Department office. "He knew what those transitions meant."

"My husband talked with them about the three miracles in his life," Griffin said. "He'd say, 'My three miracles are, I got out of Vietnam alive, I met and married my wife, Peg, and we had my three children.' And he would tell them, 'You will have your miracles, too, but you have to go out there and find them.' "

In addition to his wife and children, Mr. Sabatier leaves his stepmother, Edith of Santa Fe, Texas; three sisters, Lisa of Santa Fe, Texas, and Sandy Saeed and Crystal Foreman, both of Dickinson, Texas; and two brothers, Mark and Michael, both of Dickinson.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Wednesday in St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley. Burial will be in Woodlawn Cemetery in Wellesley.