I was visiting my brother in Charlotte one hot summer day in the '80s, when he suggested heading over to Lake Champlain for a swim. But my brother had MS and navigated his life in a wheelchair, so I don’t know what he was thinking since this part of the lake was inaccessible to someone without the use of his legs.
Then, out of nowhere came four men, including Johannes Von Trapp of the famous family. My brother introduced us. Then, Johannes and his friends placed their hands on each other’s wrists and created a human chair for my brother who was taken carefully down the steep bank into the water. He still had enough strength and muscle power in his arms to swim - sometimes even for miles. My brother loved Lake Champlain - even sailing it with his son, by using his arms and upper body to man the tiller.
And this wasn’t the only Vermont adventure we had together. One day, I told him I’d arranged for a ramp to be installed at the Union Christian Church in historic Plymouth Notch. So he drove down from Charlotte in his car equipped with a special steering apparatus and insisted on wheeling his chair right up the ramp - even before it had railings! I offered to have him carried up the steps, but he insisted on doing things himself.
One winter day we went skiing at Killington, where he sat in a sled and used two short poles to fly down the slope. I skied alongside on traditional skis – and I think he was faster. As a student at Middlebury College in the ‘60s he’d actually skied a lot - so this whole concept was fine with him.
He pointed out a woman friend of his, who was cutting a fine figure on the mountain in her red ski suit. Dartmouth College graduate Diana Golden, had lost a leg to cancer at age 12, but went on to win an Olympic medal at the 1988 Calgary Games where disabled skiing was a demonstration sport.
My brother, Richard Douglas, served for many years as Vermont’s Commissioner for Rehabilitation and then went on to the national scene where he helped advocate Justin Dart and U.S. Senator Bob Dole write the Americans with Disabilities Act.
And now, 25 years later, it seems a fitting legacy for someone who worked so hard to empower others - just as he’d empowered himself.