Cape’s Pamela Kelley Burkley fought for disability rights

Cynthia McCormick

| Cape Cod Times

Pamela Kelley Burkley of Hyannis always joked that she was known in the national media as “that girl” – the teenager who was paralyzed in 1973 when a jeep driven by Joseph P. Kennedy II on Nantucket fell over and shut her up Threw ground.

Those who knew Burkley, who died on November 20 at the age of 65, said her real legacy lay in her work as a disability rights attorney, her love for family, and her irreverent sense of humor.

“Pamela was a frontline activist,” said Bill Henning, who followed Burkley as executive director of CORD (Cape Organization for the Rights of the Disabled).

“It was articulate. She was as personable as the devil ”and full of chutzpah, said Henning.

Burkley was a founding member of CORD and “a tireless advocate for people with disabilities who literally fights on the streets for equal access to all aspects of life, including transportation, housing and employment,” said Coreen Brinckerhoff, current CEO of CORD.

To demonstrate the impossibility of crossing Main Street in Falmouth in the 1980s, Burkley joined a jam of people in wheelchairs that stretched across the street, said Henning, who is now executive director of the Boston Center for Independent Living.

“Falmouth agreed to make curb cuts,” Henning said.

As a student at Cape Cod Community College, Burkley worked with CORD to confront school administrators with access issues on the hill campus in West Barnstable.

There was a federal citizenship complaint and protests, said Henning.

“At some point we were told that people could be carried up the stairs,” he said. “The fight for equal access to disabilities was fairly new in the US and completely new in the Cape.”

Burkley “wouldn’t suffer from the outrage of inequality in school. After strong advocacy, the college agreed to invest millions in compliance with state entry rules, “and the federal rehabilitation act of 1973,” Henning said.

Karen Kelley of Centerville described her younger sister as a fighter – and a peacemaker.

After the Jeep accident that occurred shortly after Burkley’s graduation from Barnstable High School, the 18-year-old’s doctors said she would likely be no more than 40 and never have children, Kelley said.

Burkley survived the prediction by 25 years and had a daughter – Paige Burkley, now 31 – whom she described as the love of her life, and two grandchildren.

“She always found a way to do something,” said Kelley.

She said her sister fought and won a fight using alcohol and drugs and got outside in her wheelchair as often as possible, Kelley said.

“She was happy-happy,” she said.

The middle child of five siblings, Burkley often agreed to do the rap for something her brother or sisters did because she was so lovable. “She wouldn’t get in as much trouble as we do,” said Kelley.

Burkley was rated “most absent” in high school and was known to break conventions she disapproved of – usually with her distinctive smile, as seen in Facebook posts with a cigarette in hand was shown.

“Pam was one of the funniest people I know,” said Brinckerhoff.

“I called her Pammer for some reason and we laughed at work for hours. Endless laughter, ”said Brinckerhoff in an email.

At the end of her life, Burkley, who left CORD in 2006, had chronic pain in her shoulders and chest, likely due to the years she pushed her wheelchair before getting a motorized model, Kelley said.

“As she got older, she was more in bed,” she said.

She said Burkley developed severe pressure ulcers and spent three months at Bourne Manor Extended Care in Buzzards Bay before being rushed to Tobey Hospital in Wareham on November 20, where she died the same day.

“We didn’t expect it,” said Kelley, adding that she spoke to Burkley on the phone almost every day.

During an interview with The Times in 1999, Burkley spoke to a reporter about the Jeep crash that has become a bullet in the Kennedy family tragedy timeline.

Burkley said she and her siblings had regular contacts with the sons of Ethel and the late Robert F. Kennedy.

“We were with them all summer. If we didn’t date them we’d have a crush on them, ”she said. “We knew her. They weren’t ‘famous’ to us. “

Burkley said she and the late David Kennedy once ran away together on a road trip west and continued to see each other at Hyannisport.

“We were a handful,” she said.

That August day in 1973, Joe invited her and David to a beach party with another Kelley sibling and three friends in Nantucket.

In her memory, Burkley said Joe was trying to take a shortcut through the woods to build the ferry when the jeep overturned.

Other passengers were injured, but Burkley was the worst, paralyzed from the chest down.

Joe Kennedy was fined $ 100 for negligent driving and paid an amount insured close to $ 668,000.

Burkley didn’t want to sue her friends, Kelley said.

When faced with life as a single mother with disabilities and declining health in 2005, Burkley criticized the Kennedys in the national media for disregarding them and failing to help with spending.

Joe Kennedy also denied this view in newspaper articles and promised to continue helping Burkley.

In the end, Burkley is known for her work as a crusader for the rights of people with disabilities, Henning said.

“She fought a great battle,” he said.

Burkley’s family members said the services to the woman who did so much for the people of Cape Cod will be private due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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