Judith L. Babbitt, who died on Saturday, Oct. 15, left behind plenty of tangible examples in San Antonio of her dedication to disability access. Some are easier to spot than others, but for those with mobility issues, they have made all the difference.
And Judy did it all with a positive attitude and a smile.
As the City’s first accessibility compliance manager, she championed the idea that accessibility is “not just a nice thing, it’s a civil right,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1).
She was three months away from celebrating a 45-year tenure with the City of San Antonio. Judy’s sister, Dana Kizzier, stated in an obituary this week that she died peacefully “following complications from a series of medical incidents in Hospice and in the loving arms of her beloved husband of 51 years, Milton Babbitt.”
She started work in San Antonio as a city planner in 1972 and quickly got to work on improving the lives of people with disabilities.
Nine years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, Judy had already helped develop the Disability Access Office (DAO) which works with each City department to move accessibility, for all citizens, up the list of priorities in terms of employment, facilities, and programming. Throughout the 1990s and in the last decade, she was instrumental in the successful effort to make the River Walk truly ADA accessible with ramps, elevators, and maps to connect people to accessible routes.
“Judy’s work transcended her role as head of the City’s Disability Access Office – she used her own physical disability and personal experience to challenge traditional expectations about mobility, independence and equal access for all of our residents, specifically those with disabilities,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said in Council chambers Thursday morning, listing off Judy’s work on the City’s ADA Sidewalk Transition Plan, Sidewalk Task Force, and Audible Pedestrian Signals program which helps those with visual impairments know when it’s safe to cross a street.
“We celebrate and honor Judy’s exceptional life and lasting legacy of contributions to the City, to persons with disabilities, and to the entire community,” Sculley said, adding in a phone conversation later: “She was extremely positive, always helpful and full of suggestions. Sometimes advocates can (act) in a controversial way, but she was always positive. It was just impossible to say no to her.”
Sculley and several Council members spoke about Judy’s work and legacy on Thursday morning before discussion of the rest of the meeting agenda.
“I enjoyed her fussing at me,” said Councilman Joe Krier (D9), who recalled getting into several arguments with Judy. “She was always right and I was always wrong.”
Treviño told the Rivard Report after the Council meeting that her expertise also was instrumental in ensuring that the new river barge design, and other projects around town, went beyond technical compliance with ADA to make people with disabilities feel comfortable and welcome.
“(Accessibility) isn’t a gift that we’re giving the city. This isn’t an idea or a notion. It’s people’s rights,” he said.
Judy was one of several City and community leaders featured in Treviño’s State of the Center City video:
“Judy’s passing is a profound loss to the entire TCI family,” stated Mike Frisbie, City engineer and Transportation and Capital Improvements director. “Having worked closely with her and her office across all of our projects and operations, our entire team relied on her voice, knowledge, wisdom, and wit to ensure that our streets, sidewalks, and facilities remained accessible to all. Judy’s leadership of the DAO was transformative, compassionate, and tireless. We’re better as a city and community for her life, her mission, and her purpose.”
Fellow disability access advocate Judith Laufer recalled sharing bi-weekly dinners and trips to art museums, theater, and other cultural institutions with her longtime friend.
“She was very sophisticated,” Laufer said in a phone interview on Friday afternoon. “And yet if it was your birthday or a special holiday she would send – she sent me and my brother – homemade greeting cards that could have been done by a precocious third-grader.”
She laughed as she described these treasured, paradoxical creations from Judy; smiley faces and stick figures on oversized cardboard.
“They were so unsophisticated that you wouldn’t believe it was from her,” she said. I could hear her smile over the phone.
Judy had a playful side.
Complications from polio she contracted when she was a child led to Judy’s eventual need for crutches and then a wheelchair decades later.
“In the ’60s, I walked well enough without crutches that I could step up on curbs and could climb steps,” Judy told her friend Maria Gloria Flores in a 2005 interview for an oral history project at Palo Alto College. “However, I often found that there were long flights of steps involved, which was a real challenge. The people that couldn’t walk were not around, they were nowhere, isolated from the real world. Many were forced into institutions.”
This sparked a fire that led her to become an advocate for people with disabilities.
Born in Rapid City, SD in 1940, Judy, contracted polio in 1946 like so many other children.
“Everyone was getting polio. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt had it,” she told Flores. “Yes, and as I grew older, he became an idol. He had the same disability I did. When I got polio, it was the disease of the nation and you know there was hardly one family that wasn’t affected by it.”
She spent almost a year quarantined away from her family, but when her strength returned, she returned to school with crutches.
“My family would say, ‘you go lil’ sucker, you get out there and you are going to do the dishes like everybody else and you’re going to help clean the house and go to school,'” Judy told Flores. “And I think that is why I appreciate being brought up with a family that never said, ‘poor you.’ I grew up with the full knowledge that I was a participant in my own decisions and responsible for them.”
She started noticing the deficits of City infrastructure early in life.
“Then there were no laws prescribing accessible communities which meant there were no ramps, curb ramps, and not many elevators,” Judy said. “Getting around was pretty tough but I was little and tough and the barriers didn’t seem to matter. I was using crutches then and got such strong arms and shoulders they keep me going to this day.”
She spent two years in the Philippines with the Peace Corps teaching English to Filipino teachers.
“While in the Philippines, her strength was not great,” stated Olivia Gaitan, an accessibility compliance specialist and friend and colleague of Babbitt, who compiled information about Judith’s life, “so the residents of the town she was in found a horse for her to ride to get around the area.”
Judy got her bachelors in education from the University of Northern Colorado and then received a masters in urban studies from Trinity University in 1972. She married her husband and best friend, Milton, an architect who helped design the Tower of the Americas. It was his work that led the Babbitts to San Antonio.
Click here to read the full text of Flores’ interview with Judy.