Elizabeth Bacon, 1947-2008

Elizabeth (Betty) Bacon, one of the most influential and dynamic advocates for the rights of people with disabilities in San Diego and California for more than 30 years, passed away unexpectedly due to illness Sunday, February 24, 2008, in San Diego. She was 61.

Before her retirement in 2004, Betty worked for 29 years at San Diego State University, serving as Director of Disabled Student Services (DSS) for 25 years and for four years in the Office of Diversity and Equity, demonstrating leadership in the formulation of policies that affect SDSU employees and visitors to the campus.

Betty became involved with disability issues after she sustained a spinal cord injury in 1968 as the result of a sporting accident. She used a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She subsequently completed a B.A. and Masters Degree in counseling at San Jose State University. She became interested in the development of the support services program for disabled students at San Jose State University. That involvement marked the beginning of a professional career for this petite, passionate, effective advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

Soon after in 1975, Betty moved to San Diego to direct the DSS program at San Diego State University. She took over a fledgling program serving about 100 students with disabilities. The office was in the old Campus Laboratory School, in space that had formerly housed the kitchen for the school cafeteria. Under her direction, the program grew from a staff of two to 15 full-time employees and numerous part-time staff which now serves over 1,100 students annually. Betty’s on-campus responsibilities also included consulting with staff in Facilities Planning and Physical Plant on architectural accessibility to ensure compliance with state and federal codes and regulations. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, Betty coordinated the required campus self-evaluation. The SDSU program, which she directed, became a model for many others and she was often called upon as a mentor and guide to other Directors of programs for students with disabilities in higher education. In her campus work, she was a tireless advocate for an accessible campus and for equal access for students with disabilities to all university programs.

In addition to developing the DSS program at SDSU, Betty was involved at the system-wide and state level. She served as the chair of the California State University DSS Directors, as a member of the CSU Chancellors Office Advisory Committee on Services for Students with Disabilities, and on a similar committee on Services for Faculty and Staff with Disabilities. Some of her additional accomplishments include: Serving on a variety of local boards and advisory committees to the City and County addressing such issues as architectural accessibility, access to public transportation and employment; Serving as an elected delegate to the 1977 National White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals; Founding Board Member of Community Service Center for the Disabled, now Access to Independence, in San Diego, one of the largest independent living centers in the country. Betty was appointed by Governor Wilson to the California Department of Rehabilitation Advisory Committee, and served as an advisor to the Office of the State Architect on code revisions. She also served as an executive committee member of the California Association for Postsecondary Education and Disability. In addition, she served on the Citizens Review Committee on ADA for the City of San Diego, as a member of the Accessibility Advisory Committee to the Port of San Diego, as a program evaluator at San Diego City College and several other community colleges. Betty went toe-to-toe with the oil industry to make gas pumps accessible, the housing industry over universal design, MTS on making the trolleys accessible, and the Mayor’s Office on creating and sustaining a disability services position at City Hall.

Betty was always positive and respectful as well as tireless, knowledgeable, and tenacious in her dedication to an accessible community that is welcoming to everyone. In her own words, “I believe that we must work toward a world and a community that includes us all and values our differences.”

Predeceased by her parents, Dr. Alfons R. and Dorothy Bacon, she is survived by her twin sister Ellen (and Scott) Guthrie of Tallahassee, Florida, brother Chuck (and Caroline) Bacon of Falmouth, Massachusetts, sister Nancy (and David) Rothel of Dahlonega, Georgia, brother Frank (and AnnLiv) Bacon of Edina, Minnesota, brother Jim (and Jane) Chandler of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and niece Laura Wiley of Raleigh, North Carolina as well as numerous close friends and colleagues in San Diego, California, and nationwide who will all miss her wisdom, positive spirit, dedication, friendship and love.

Betty loved nature, and felt strongly that the Earth must be cared for and protected so that all persons, including people with disabilities, might enjoy and thrive on our planet. As a result, she expressed a desire that in lieu of flowers any donations in her name be sent to the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, or the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

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“Elizabeth Bacon, advocate for rights of the disabled”

She loved to dance, travel and hike, and Elizabeth “Betty” Bacon didn’t let a wheelchair stop her from doing anything, especially advocating for the rights of others with disabilities.

Whether it was getting wheelchair ramps on college campuses and other public buildings or pushing for more lifts on city buses and trolleys, Ms. Bacon was often on the front lines of change. “She was dogged but never rude or harsh,” said Catherine Campisi, former director of the state Department of Rehabilitation.

Ms. Bacon was the director of Disabled Student Services at San Diego State University for 25 years. She also worked at SDSU’s Office of Diversity and Equity for four years.

Ms. Bacon died Feb. 24 at a San Diego hospital. Her body was donated to science, per her wishes. The cause of death was sepsis, an infection of the bloodstream, said her sister, Ellen Guthrie. She was 60.

Friends and colleagues said Ms. Bacon was a coalition builder who won people over with her charm and persistence. She played a significant role in ensuring that city and county agencies complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act. She was most recently involved in the “What’s Next” program that pairs disabled teens and young adults with older professionals with similar disabilities who could mentor them.

“She was very much of a mentor to many people over the years,” said Helen Elias, a longtime friend. Elias, who is director of Disability Student Services at Southwestern College, said Ms. Bacon was an effective advocate because of her diplomatic and articulate manner. “She had strong feelings but there was never a sense of anger or sense of entitlement,” Elias said.

Ms. Bacon was one of four named plaintiffs in a 1995 class-action lawsuit claiming San Diego County was violating the ADA. Cyndi Jones, director of the Center for an Accessible Society, recalled Ms. Bacon calling a cadre of friends to visit county parks over the weekend. She wanted to rebut a lawyer’s contention about 100 percent compliance before a scheduled Monday meeting. “We went to Carlsbad, Julian, Escondido . . . we visited every park in the county. She made advocacy fun,” Jones said. “We did an access survey and found that only 53 percent of the parks were in compliance. Many had no accessible parking or bathrooms.”

Elias said that Ms. Bacon loved nature and enjoyed camping, hiking and sailing. She was gregarious and enjoyed having parties at her Allied Gardens home. “She had a lot of joy and loved helping others,” Elias said.

When Catherine Campisi moved to San Diego in the mid-1970s, there were no formal resource centers for people with disabilities. “I was told, ‘Go meet Betty Bacon and she’ll help you.’ Later we became colleagues and good friends,” Campisi said.

Ms. Bacon’s involvement with disability issues started after a sporting accident in 1968. She parachuted into a tree and the fall from the tree left her with a spinal cord injury. She used a wheelchair the rest of her life. “Betty always said she was happy with the person that she was and she wouldn’t be that person without her disability,” said her twin sister, Ellen Guthrie.

Ms. Bacon was born Dec. 31, 1947, in Chicago to Alfons and Dorothy Bacon. The family moved to Sarasota, Fla., when she was 5 years old. Guthrie said their father, a physician, was not prepared for the South after practicing medicine in Chicago. “He was the first doctor (in Sarasota) to integrate his waiting room even though people told him he might lose patients,” Guthrie said. “That’s probably where Betty got her feisty spirit. She accepted everybody.”

Guthrie recalled bringing home a college roommate who happened to be blind. “She said she always wanted to learn to water ski and Betty made sure she had that experience,” she said.

Ms. Bacon earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in counseling from San Jose State University. She moved to San Diego in 1975 to take over San Diego State’s fledgling Disabled Student Services program, which grew from a staff of two serving about 100 students to 15 full-time employees and several part-timers serving more than 1,100 students a year.

Ray Uzeta worked with Ms. Bacon to found the Community Service Center for the Disabled, now known as Access to Independence. “You look at ramps, curb cuts, lifts on buses and trolleys . . . all the things that we now take for granted are changes that happened because of people like Betty,” Uzeta said.

Ms. Bacon was appointed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson to the California Department of Rehabilitation Advisory Committee and served on the Citizens Review Committee on ADA and Disability Issues for the city of San Diego. She also lobbied the mayor’s office to create and maintain a disability services position at City Hall.

Besides her twin sister, Ellen, of Tallahassee, Fla., Ms. Bacon is survived by her brothers, Chuck of Falmouth, Mass.; Frank of Edina, Minn.; Jim Chandler of Santa Fe, N.M.; and a sister, Nancy Rothel of Dahlonega, Ga.