This site and our work is dedicated to Marion, Leona, and Walter Fialkowski.
Marion and Leona Fialkowski were fierce advocates for all people, standing up for “the little man.” They took a stand, organized others, and gave tirelessly. They believed and lived the truth that one person can make a difference. One person can change the world.
Our family had originally 11 children, two of whom had multiple and severe disabilities, David and Walter. Through my parents efforts those children, my brothers, became adults living community-based lives. Marion and Leona Fialkowski, unfortunately, were preceded in death by their son Walter who died in a food choking accident.
Leona Fialkowski, 72, activist for disabled (reprinted from The Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday November 1, 1996)
By Andy Wallace Inquirer Staff Writer
Leona Fialkowski, 72, of Bridesburg, whose 34 year battle on behalf of severely handicapped people brought changes in their lives and in the laws regarding them, died Monday of a stroke following open heart surgery at Allegheny University Hospitals, Center City.
“She was a pioneer,” said Audrey Coccia, a friend who considered Mrs. Fialkowski a mentor and a visionary. “She didn’t succumb to society’s norm that [the severely handicapped] needed to be put away in institutions.”
Mrs. Fialkowski who had 10 children, raised her two severely handicapped sons Walter and David at home. In the 1960’s she began her struggle to gain for them the right to an education and quality care, and the recognition of their civil rights.
“The heart and sum of it is that Leona and her husband, Marion, built and changed enormously the institutions for severely disabled children and adults,” said Thomas K. Gilhool, former state secretary of education and a close friend. Their work, he said, “is without parallel anywhere in the country.”
Over the last three decades, he said, she was the “inspiration, the driver and the implementer of these very profound changes in how society gauges severely disabled people.” In the late 1960’s, Mrs. Fialkowski single-handedly prodded the Philadelphia Board of Education to establish school programs for severely disabled children at a time when those children were excluded from public education by law, he said.
Although she was not a part to the case, she inspired a landmark 1972 federal court case that established the right of disabled children to a free public education, Gilhool said. And when Congress was considering legislation guaranteeing an education to all handicapped children in the country, in the early 1970’s, she was there to testify. The legislation passed in 1975. She went to court in the mid-70’s over the quality of education her sons were getting.
The battle ended in 1982 , and again she won. In the settlement worked out in the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the School District of Philadelphia was compelled to implement a program that would teach disabled children skills that would help them get jobs, care for themselves and function in the community. “It resulted in a decree causing Philadelphia to redesign programs for severely disabled children and to retrain teachers to teach all disabled children,” Gilhool said. “By the mid-1980s, the Philadelphia program … was recognized nationally as the best in the country,” he said. “She drove that [case] from beginning to end.”
In addition to major battles over rights, Mrs. Fialkowski fought a number of skirmishes — over money, for example. In 1989, she was one of the two parents who went to court to force the state to restore $7.5 million for services to mentally retarded people who were cared for at home.
At that time, Mrs. Fialkowski was 66, had suffered two strokes and was looking after her husband who was suffering from cancer and a dislocated disc. He died in March 1994. Even then, she would not place her son David in an institution. His older brother Walter had choked to death on a sandwich in 1986 in a community-living program in the Northeast.
Mrs. Fialkowski began working for the disabled when her last two sons were born with cerebral palsy. “She felt they had the same rights as individuals as other people and she dedicated her life in pursuit of that,” said her daughter Kathryn Caldwell. She was successful because “she never gave up,” Caldwell said. “She didn’t believe anybody in any authority was any better, and she went head to head with anybody in any job at any level — in education, in politics, in business. She fundamentally didn’t believe in any kind of discrimination.”
Mrs. Fialkowski’s work was not only on behalf of the disabled — she felt she was working to help people who were not handicapped as well, her daughter said. “She felt good about educating people about tolerance and patience. She helped people who weren’t disabled to accept people who were.” Mrs. Fialkowski also didn’t stop long enough to count her accomplishments. “She felt her work wasn’t done,” Caldwell said. One of her newer projects was CareerNet, a program founded to find jobs and volunteer opportunities in the community for the disabled so they would not be limited to working in sheltered workshops.
Surviving are her sons Anthony, Michael, James and David; daughters Barbara McMillen, Mary Bisignaro, Eileen Williams, Joan Fialkowski and Kathryn Fialkowski Caldwell; a brother; 20 grandchildren; and three great grand-children.