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Name: Starnes, Nancy
Current Position: Previous Chair

The U.S. Access Board (USAB), an independent Federal agency that works to assure enforced accessibility for people with disabilities and is also a key resource of information on accessible design, is chaired this year by a pioneer disability rights activist, Nancy Starnes.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1943, Starnes grew up in a semi-rural community near Dallas, Texas, where her parents had a small town-based business and a 5-acre farm with chickens, sheep, horses and a sow. Starnes earned a degree in Business Administration from the University of Texas circa 1965. Shortly after graduation, Starnes married and relocated to rural Sussex County, New Jersey, where she was both a business person and mother.
In 1973, Nancy Starnes’s life changed forever when the small private plane she was on crashed because a wasps’ nest created a vacuum in the plane’s fuel tank. The accident left Starnes paralyzed from the waist down. No longer able to get a stockbroker’s license because the building where the exam was given was not wheelchair accessible, Starnes nevertheless refused to cease living her life: “I knew my 5-year-old son and my husband needed me. I didn’t accept that I couldn’t recover. I was committed to gaining mobility and control over my life.” When she returned to work after nine months, the very first handicapped parking space in Sussex County, New Jersey, was established for her.
Starnes has been active in disability rights advocacy for more than 30 years, first as an activist and consultant, and later serving on many public, organization and consumer boards and coalitions. In 1981 Starnes began her career in public service by becoming the first woman and the first person with a disability ever elected to the Sparta, New Jersey, Town Council. In 1984, her fellow council members voted her mayor of Sparta. Also in 1981, the Board of Chosen Freeholders (i.e., New Jersey county commissioners) selected her to be the County’s liaison to the International Year of Disabled Persons. In 1988, Starnes founded and served as Director of the Sussex County Office for the Disabled.
In 1996 Starnes won the Miss Wheelchair New Jersey Pageant. She later married one of the judges, Harley Thomas, a few months before his death in 2007. In 1998 Starnes became chief operating officer of the Paralysis Society of America, which was the largest U.S. non-profit membership organization for those with spinal cord injury and disease, before its main funder, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, pulled the plug. In 1998, on behalf of the United Way, Starnes carried the Olympic torch on a portion of its journey to the Atlanta Olympics.
In 2001, Starnes left the Paralysis Society and joined the National Organization on Disability (NOD) as Director of External Affairs. In 2008, Starnes was appointed to the USAB by President George W. Bush, and was elected to a one-year term as Chair in March 2011.  
Paralysis Society of America (by Nancy Starnes)
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