Sunday, May 01, 2011

RIP Marsha

In Memory of Marsha Koelliker (nee Marsha Davis)

On April 29th, 2011, the Illinois disability community lost an amazing lifelong advocate for social justice, Marsha Koelliker.  

For 22 years, Marsha was at the forefront of advocacy efforts to advance progressive laws in Springfield to ensure that individuals with disabilities are able to exercise their fundamental rights and receive the quality services and supports necessary to fully participate in all aspects of community life. Marsha developed her expertise in the legislative process from her close friend, colleague and mentor, Dolly Hallstrom.  Dolly was a former Illinois state legislator and developed a disability during the later part of middle age.  Marsha first met Dolly when she joined the public policy team at Equip for Equality.  For many years, Marsha and Dolly were a common sight in the corridors of the state capital, with Dolly in her electric scooter and Marsha by her side.  Together, Marsha and Dolly built strong bipartisan support for disability rights legislation in Illinois.

In 1996, Marsha became the Director of the Public Policy Program at Equip for Equality and oversaw a strong team of policy analysts and interns.  At Equip for Equality's annual benefit in 2008, Marsha received the Dolly Hallstrom Award for Legislative Excellence.  She was joined by several dozen of her colleagues representing a wide range of nonprofit organizations and government.  U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky was among those who spoke of the long-term impact of Marsha's accomplishments.

Marsha's advocacy was always informed by her recognition that all people want to be treated with dignity and cherish their fundamental rights as human beings, including the right of self-determination.  She would always turn to individuals with disabilities themselves, first to discern, and then to communicate, their perspective on pending bills, and to provide a framework for use in drafting new legislation.

Marsha's in-depth understanding of the law and the public policy and legislative processes, along with her personal integrity and strong commitment to fairness and equality, combined to make her a unique advocate in Springfield.  Legislators and their staff trusted Marsha, and, therefore, trusted Equip for Equality.  They knew that they could rely on her facts, her analyses and her word.  This was something that, in the world of Springfield, was rare and refreshing.  Marsha also had the talent and the will to persuade legislators to pass legislation solely on its merit, something that was becoming increasingly uncommon.

Among her many accomplishments are passage of bills in the area of abuse and neglect, including protections for adults with disabilities who are victims of violence and neglect, enhanced oversight at community-based programs and institutional settings and provisions to safeguard students in special education from locked "time out" (seclusion), restraints and other aversive and dangerous practices.  She was a steadfast advocate for the rights of people with mental illness, including fighting to prevent a lowering of the standard for involuntary psychiatric examination as well as involuntary commitment.  She also spearheaded an effort to secure training for law enforcement about interactions individuals with mental illness. After Equip for Equality successfully represented a woman with developmental disabilities who wanted to fight her legal guardian's effort to have her involuntarily sterilized, Marsha established a coalition of groups that, together, were able to pass a bill that greatly strengthened the rights of individuals faced with involuntary sterilization.  

Marsha's passion and love for the democratic process and for the mission of Equip for Equality were well recognized among state policy and legislative leaders.  And her spirit of cooperation, as well as her unfailing kindness, made her beloved by her colleagues.  

Marsha had been battling cancer for many years and had experienced the many disabling side effects of treatment.  Despite this, she continued to work for Equip for Equality part-time until near the end of her life.  She had nevertheless persevered with humor and grace to continue work on behalf of people with all types of disabilities.  

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations in Marsha's name be made to:

Equip for Equality
20 N. Michigan, Suite 300
Chicago, Illinois 60602

Marsha's obituary notice.

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