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.

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