Joel Bryan, 1937-2005

Joel Bryan , longtime treasurer and a founder of the Yolano Chapter of Californians for Disability Rights, died Wednesday, January 19, 2005 from complications due to pneumonia. He was 67 years old. Born July 13, 1937, he was the oldest of four children of Dr. Jack Y. and Margaret Gardner Bryan in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was a university professor, foreign-service diplomat and author and his mother was teacher of ESL. The family was stationed in a number of countries and were living in the Philippines in 1950 where Joel contracted polio at the age of 12. He was totally paralyzed and needed an iron lung to breathe.

As a result of aggressive rehabilitation at Kabat-Kaiser (1951-4) in Santa Monica, California he was eventually able to breathe on his own and could sit up in a wheelchair. His parents insisted that he attend regular high school and he graduated from Newport High in 1956. He attended Orange Coast Community College and transferred to UC Riverside where he received his BA in Psychology in 1964.

During his college years he took a year off to go to Karachi with his family, teaching algebra and geometry at the American School. Additionally, he did a one-year internship at the California Institute for Women.

Music was always an important part of Joel’s life. He played piano prior to becoming ill with polio. Early in his hospital stay Joel got a small harmonica and later a larger chromatic harmonica which allows for sharps and flats as well as the white keys on the piano. From the orderlies at the hospital he was introduced to jazz and the blues. With some adaptation for holding the harmonica, he played as he lay in bed and gradually got stronger. The addition of a chamber to allow for the collection of the sound enabled him to control the volume through a guitar amplifier. With the larger sound he was able to play with rock and roll groups, first at UC Riverside and then as the featured artist with a jazz group in Newport Beach. He was part of the Jan DeNeau Quartet and written up in Downbeat magazine in June of 1966. Through his music, Joel was able to express his feelings of pain and loneliness. As he said once, “I could harness those feelings and blow them through that instrument.”

After graduation he applied for a position in the Student Placement Center at UC Riverside. When he was offered the position he eagerly accepted it, relishing the success of competing for a regular job that included working with students and having the ability to live independently. He was the first student in a wheelchair to UCR and the university worked with him on accommodations as problems arose. Since the university was relatively new, classrooms and the campus were generally accessible.

However, in 1963 the University built a new wing off the library and it had three steps in front of it. Although it was still accessible, Joel would need special help and special permission to gain access to the library. By now there were four students in wheelchairs, so he gathered them together and wrote a letter to the dean of students, expressing outrage that the campus was excluding them from the library. The letter not only reversed the thoughtless direction in terms of design but the university adapted a barrier-free building program in 1966.

Five years later he was asked to lead the disabled students program at UCR. Through his position with Student Placement, Joel was interviewing 40 students a day who were looking for work. He helped other disabled students find, hire and train attendants. He became involved in the campus administration in terms of addressing students’ needs and in 1969 UCR created Student Special Services and appointed him director. By this time there were 12 students in wheelchairs and the need for services for severely disabled students was evident.

UCR was in a unique position with its relatively barrier-free environment. He worked with the campus architect, involved students in reviewing new buildings and retrofitting old ones, did a campus needs assessment and institutionalized student input. Joel’s philosophy was to treat students as adults, letting them make their own decisions and learning from them. It was important that each student was in charge of himself. The first priority became a wheelchair repair center and an Educational Resource Center.

In 1970 the federal Trio grants (Special Services for Disadvantaged Students in Institutions of Higher Education) came out. The request proposal addressed the needs of physically disadvantaged students. The grant stressed that UCR would have special services to overcome handicaps to higher education arising from disabilities. It was funded, along with a community-based program at UC Berkeley that brought together Ed Roberts (a post Polio quadriplegic) and John Hessler (a traumatic quadriplegic), who were later appointed to the Department of Rehabilitation during the Brown Administration. Ed Roberts became the first disabled director of that department. Both men have preceded Joel in death but together they formed the Disabled Movement in Higher Education during the 60’s and 70’s.

Joel was hired in 1973 to head the program at UC Davis and retired in 1987 as post-polio syndrome began to affect his respiratory system and make full-time work impossible. Joel had met his wife, Mary Jo, when she returned to college to get her BA. He assisted with finding her part-time employment but she ended with a full time position as his wife in December 1969. Together they moved to Davis in September of 1973 with their infant son, John Gordon and in 1975 Barton Guy was born. Joel continued to play the harmonica, the pain of his loneliness replaced with the happiness of his life through marriage and the birth of his sons.

Joel was always an avid sports fan and when the Sacramento Kings came to town, his brother-in-law, Bill Walton was able to obtain season tickets for him and his family. He attended Kings games for the last 20 years. Joel never gave up hope on the King’s and enjoyed their current success. Section 107 has experienced the lost of a great fan and friend.

In the Yolano Chapter of CDR, Joel was also a leader and seasoned participant in many of its discussions and forums on accessibility and independent living for persons with a variety of disabling conditions. A special concern of his was that a person with a disability should become his or her own expert on it, so as to assist health care professionals to provide appropriate medical and therapeutic care.

Joel is survived by his wife of 35 years, Mary Jo, his sons Gordon and Barton, his sisters Donna and Kirsten and brother Guy, and an extended family on both sides that admired, loved and will miss him dearly.

Contributions to Californians for Disability Rights Foundation scholarship program (tax deductible) or to the Yolano Chapter of CDR.