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Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson 

Always a mentor and advocate, Steve embraced life and made it his life’s work to expand disability rights and independent living. In 1967, Steve was paralyzed from a fall. Rather than dwell on his circumstances, Steve moved forward with his education and sought opportunities to work with others with a passion for independent living. He earned a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Science in Education from Old Dominion University. In 1982, Steve was hired as a peer counselor by Handicaps Unlimited of Virginia. This is the organization that established the Endependence Center, a disability advocacy organization that Steve went on to become Executive Director until his retirement in 2018.

Steve was appointed by Governors to the Statewide Independent Living Council (1993 and 1997) and the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities (1989). He was also appointed to serve on the National Steering Committee of the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Independent Living Management (2000), Sentara Trauma Center Task Force (2003), Virginia Beach Mayor’s Committee for the Disabled (1984), Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation Commission (1992), and Virginia Mayor’s Committees/Commissions for People with Disabilities (1987).

Steve was involved in hard and long fought battles for the Virginians with Disabilities Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After these laws were enacted, he led ECI’s efforts to educate the community about these laws. Access to the Virginia Beach oceanfront, Harbor Park Stadium, schools, Town Center, the Virginia Beach amphitheater, The Spirit of Norfolk, and Virginia Zoo occurred with Steve’s leadership. Community living for hundreds of people with disabilities who have left institutions is possible due to Steve’s encouragement and commitment to changes in services.

Knowing firsthand the importance of quality supports, Steve led statewide advocacy efforts and a pilot project to establish the first consumer-directed personal assistance services in Virginia. Today over 40,000 Virginians use consumer-directed personal care services to control their supports.

Funding to expand advocacy and other independent living services was made possible through collaborations Steve established and maintained with the following: localities of Chesapeake, Franklin, Isle of Wight County, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach; Hampton Roads Community Foundation; Hampton Roads Transit; local hospitals and insurance systems; Mid-Atlantic ADA Center; public housing agencies; and Senior Services. Striving to establish needed services used by people with disabilities. Steve worked to establish fee for service agreements with state agencies that provided funding to not only ECI, but other Virginia Centers for Independent Living. An early pioneer of teleworking and the belief that teleworking could be beneficial to people with disabilities, Steve initiated involvement in a project with the Commonwealth to establish telework practices.

Achieving financial stability, Steve ushered the Endependence Center through a process to establish Endependence Properties, a private nonprofit, that purchased the building that ECI now uses.

Steve had a manner of promoting and praising ECI, but never his role. He treated everyone with respect and valued teamwork. His mentoring of other advocates over the years made ECI a strong organization respected throughout Virginia. Steve was a leader within the Virginia Association of Centers for Independent Living. He mentored new Center Executive Directors and endeavored to find consensus on challenging disability issues.

Nearly every local community service, public accommodation and government program was influenced by Steve’s leadership over the past 30 years. Steve had a unique style of working with participants and staff encouraging them to find their passion and to have the tools needed to live that passion.

In addition to a life of advocacy and leadership, Steve enjoyed his family life with his wife, Linda, their children and grandchildren, and siblings. He was a Philadelphia Eagles fan enthusiast, enjoyed the beach and was an occasional prankster.

Steve’s career as an advocate resulted in significant changes throughout Virginia paving the way for independent living.

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