Last Word: What Life Brings You

Longtime advocate for persons with disabilities cheers daughters on to Paralympics glory.

By Deborah McFadden '79

My Bucknell story is not a traditional one but is filled with lessons that helped inform my future. I entered Bucknell with much excitement about the possibilities for my life. I was active and involved and was learning the importance of a good education and community service.

While at Bucknell, I became very ill and, soon after taking a medical leave, contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder that left me paralyzed and in a wheelchair for nearly five years. I spent more years learning to walk again. This wasn’t the life I had imagined, but there I was, in a wheelchair, experiencing firsthand the kind of discrimination that you only read about in books. The experience, combined with my membership in Bucknell’s Concern and Action volunteer-service club, was the impetus for my life of advocacy.

In 1989, as a result of my advocacy for persons with disabilities, President George H.W. Bush asked me to serve as his commissioner of disabilities. I accepted immediately and was honored to play a significant role in the writing and passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When the Soviet Union was dissolved, President Bush charged me to provide aid to orphanages and hospitals for children in Russia. I traveled there frequently, bringing medicine, food and whatever might improve the quality of life for these children. On each trip, I was overwhelmed by the need but also heartened by the humanity of the children and their caregivers.

On one trip I met a young girl who would become my daughter. Tatyana, 5, was born with spinal bifida, and was extremely malnourished. I didn’t know how long Tatyana might live, but I knew instantly that I needed to bring her to America and get her on a path to better health. After multiple surgeries, I got her involved in sports to improve her health and soon she began to thrive.

Several years later, I adopted Hannah, and a few years after that, Ruthi, both from Albania. I had not planned to adopt more children. But it felt right. When Hannah was 5, she had her leg amputated above the knee due to congenital bone issues. As Hannah grew, she chose prosthetic legs, in bold purple and pink, to display her pride and confidence in who she was. Like her older sister, participating in athletics made her stronger and more self-confident.

Today Tatyana, 27, and Hannah, 20, are internationally ranked first and fourth, respectively, in their track events. Tatyana has become the fastest wheelchair racer in the world and is the first person to win the Grand Slam of major world marathons in one year (London, Boston, Chicago and New York). And Ruthi, 16, has just received her Girl Scout Gold Award for producing a coloring book to help elementary-school students learn that people with disabilities can do anything.

Cheering from the stands as my daughters competed at the Paralympic Games in Rio this summer, I was thankful for the incredible opportunities that life has given me, and most important, for my family members who amaze me every day with their determination, can-do attitude and humanity.

What a happy life!


Deborah McFadden '79 continues as a disabilities advocate and is a sports agent who lives in Clarkesville, Md.