During his freshman year at Oklahoma State University, Lex Frieden, an engineering student, was in an automobile accident that resulted in a spinal cord injury. That event was the spark that ignited a lifetime career in advocacy for individuals with disabilities, and eventually resulted in national legislation securing equal rights for individuals with disabilities.
As a result of the accident, Frieden was a quadriplegic and began using a wheelchair. His rehabilitation included coming to TIRR Memorial Hermann where he met Dr. William A. Spencer, the hospital’s founder and a pioneer in rehabilitative medicine. Once Frieden’s rehabilitative care was complete, he intended to continue his studies. However, he was denied admission to the university due to his disability. He eventually completed a Bachelor of Science in psychology at the University of Tulsa and a Master of Arts in social psychology at the University of Houston.
“I was a graduate student when Dr. Spencer told me that if I was interested in rehabilitation research, I should look into getting funding for a program for independent living research at TIRR Memorial Hermann,” says Frieden. So he did.
The Independent Living Research Utilization Program (ILRU) at TIRR Memorial Hermann was established in 1977, as a research, training and technical assistance program on independent living for people with disabilities and seniors.
Frieden has been instrumental in the independent living movement. He has published several books and papers on independent living and served as a consultant panel member for the United States House of Representatives' Committee on Science and Technology from 1976 through 1978. He prepared the background paper on Community and Residential Based Housing for the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals in 1977. From 1989 to 1990, he represented the United States on a disability and employment panel at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, France.
In addition, Frieden is widely regarded as a chief architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“In January of 1986, I met with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush about the ADA,” said Frieden. “He supported what we were doing, but reminded me that he was just the vice president and as soon as he had the chance to do more, he would.”
Two years after that, Bush was elected president and in 1990, he signed the ADA into law.
President George W. Bush appointed Frieden Chairman of the National Council on Disability, and the Senate confirmed his appointment on July 26, 2002, the anniversary of the signing of the ADA. Frieden's swearing in ceremony was conducted in the Oval Office by the President and the White House Chief of Staff. Under Frieden's leadership, the Council produced a report, Righting the ADA, that made recommendations leading to enactment of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, and they proposed a UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.
Today, he continues to serve as director of the ILRU at TIRR Memorial Hermann. In addition, Frieden is Professor of Biomedical Informatics and Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and he is Adjunct Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine.
Frieden has received numerous honors, including two Presidential Citations for his work in the field of disability, and he was recognized by the U.S. Jaycees in 1983 as one of America's Ten Outstanding Young Men. In 1998, he received the Henry B. Betts Award for "efforts that significantly improve the quality of life for people with disabilities."
In addition, he continues leading the ILRU and can frequently be found in TIRR’s hallways, supporting individuals with disabilities.
“I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to write the report that asked for the ADA. I’m thankful that I had the chance to write the original draft of the ADA. I’m thankful for the experiences that I had. I don’t feel particularly, personally, responsible for it—I just feel thankful that people with disabilities for generations to come will not be bound by the limits imposed through discrimination,” said Frieden.
As a prelude to the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Lex Frieden and President Bush reflected on the magnitude of change brought about by the passage of the act and the work that remains to be done.