Deidre Davis Butler, Who Fought for Incapacity Rights, Dies at 64

Growing up in New Jersey, Deidre Davis Butler was an unlikely sight on the tennis court. A spinal tumor had affected her mobility – later in life she would be in a wheelchair – but her father had taught her to play net in her own way.

“I couldn’t walk well, so I used the tennis racket as a stick,” she told Exceptional Parent magazine in 1998. “And I hit the ball, fell, got up and did the same.”

That kind of determination led her through law school and an impressive career shaping laws and policies that affect people with disabilities in both government and the private sector.

She was an important figure in the development of the Disabled Americans Act of 1990, which she helped draft, and in the years immediately following its enactment when attention was drawn to the fulfillment of its guarantees.

From the mid-1990s onwards, Ms. Davis Butler served as assistant assistant secretary in the State Department for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, on a role where she traveled around the world to ensure that American embassies and other government agencies were complying with civil and disability guidelines.

“She was a conqueror,” said Rev. Edward A. Hailes Jr., who is also a civil rights attorney and has been her friend since she graduated from law school. “She has overcome fears and pressures not only for herself but all over the world. It has removed obstacles for people with disabilities. “

Mr. Hailes made these remarks on a video played at her funeral on Monday in Fayetteville, Ark. Ms. Davis Butler died on August 7th in Rogers, Ark., Where she lived. She was 64 years old. An obituary posted on the Beard’s Funeral Chapel website reported her death. There was no reason.

Deidre Ann Davis was born on September 26, 1955 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Hilton and Bernice (Jones) Davis and grew up in nearby Linden. Her mother, an educator, and her father, a lawyer, struggled to get her into high-quality schools that were inaccessible to black children like her or students with disabilities – battles that left them deeply impressed.

“My family’s example has made me believe that everyone deserves equal treatment in access to health care and education, in public and as a citizen,” she wrote in a 2010 article for

Her life as a person with a disability began when she was 6 years old when she woke up one day and was unable to walk.

“I remember thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe I’m still sleeping,'” she told Exceptional Parent.

A spinal cord tumor had caused the paralysis; After it was removed and after extensive rehabilitation, she was able to walk for the remainder of her childhood and through college at Brandeis University. However, during her sophomore year of Howard University Law School, multiple vertebrae collapsed and she used a wheelchair afterward.

Mr. Hailes, a member of the 1980 Howard Law class, remembered how she had adjusted her routine to avoid dragging thick law books into class.

“She had a razor blade that she used to cut the pages she needed every day instead of lifting those heavy books,” he said in a telephone interview.

Her early jobs included working for the New Jersey Division of Public Advocate in the Office of Advocacy for the Disabled. She then became Associate Director of Dial Inc., part of the Center for Independent Living’s network of resource centers for people with disabilities.

Jane Dunhamn, a lifelong friend and director of the National Black Disability Coalition, said Ms. Davis Butler at Dial developed a particular concern about services failing to reach people in minority communities and urban areas.

“Deidre picked up the coat and worked tirelessly to open ILs in black, indigenous and Latin American communities,” Ms. Dunhamn said via email. “She believed in all disabled people and worked for them. However, one of her greatest strengths was to fight for disabled people to sit with color at the table. “

Ms. Davis Butler moved to Washington in 1987, where she first led the Department of Education’s independent life program and then joined the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There she led the training initiatives set up to implement the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

In addition to her role at the State Department, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the Office of the President of the White House, which oversees appointments for the administration.

Ms. Davis Butler brought her expertise to the private sector in 2005, becoming the first female director of ADA services at Walmart. She helped ensure the company’s facilities were ADA compliant and promoted housing for customers and employees with disabilities.

She is survived by her husband, Juan K. Butler, whom she married in 2015. and two brothers, James Taylor Davis and Vincent Fish.

Recognition…via Dennetta Bradford

Ms. Davis Butler had strong views and was not shy to voice them. In one case, she called out to the wider black community and said that she sometimes turned her back on black people with disabilities.

“You are ostracized by your own community for failing to understand disability rights are civil rights,” she told NPR in 2010.

She lived her belief that people should not be denied the chance to fully participate in life because of a disability. At the funeral, Mr. Hailes told of a trip they had taken to Greensboro, NC, in 1980 to participate in a protest marking the anniversary of the 1979 genocide there known as the Greensboro Massacre. Their bus was parked some distance from the protest site, and the ground in between was too rough to be navigated in a wheelchair.

Some in her group thought Ms. Davis Butler should stay on the bus. “But she told me she would ride on my back,” said Mr. Hailes, “and she did” – he carried her to the scene where she joined the protest.

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