Vice President and Chief of Staff, U.S. National Organization on Disability (NOD)
Nancy Starnes was 30 years old, with 15 years in the business and financial industry when a small plane she was traveling in crashed. She left the plane alive and with T12/L1 paraplegia. She was unable to complete her licensing exams to become a stockbroker, because, at that time, the testing site was not required to have wheelchair accessible washrooms.
This was in the years before the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (1991). This was in the era when even Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy wheelchair ramps had been removed from the White House. Public access for people with disabilities was a cause that needed champions. And Nancy Starnes developed an interest in public service. Her business skills, charm and subtle approach have paved and smoothed miles of roads and ramps for the disability cause in America.
Starnes was born in Kansas City, Missouri (1943), and grew up in Dallas, Texas, in a semi-rural community. Her parents had a small business in town and a small 5 acre farm with 200 chickens, 10 sheep, three horses and a sow. Her father liked nothing more than to come home from work, get on the tractor and plow some ground, recalls Starnes. Her mother inspired her to become a business woman.
“Back in that day, most of the women who went to college were looking for that coveted ‘Mrs.’ Degree – which means they went to college to meet their mate and get married,” says Starnes. “But my mother was part of my father’s business, so I assumed I would somehow be involved in business from the management side.”
Starnes graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in business administration,
She joined the light manufacturing firm where she worked as a summer student, married, and followed her husband and his career to New York. Rather than live in the big city, they chose a rural area in New Jersey as home, and Starnes put down roots there as a business person and mother.
“The only way to get to the corporate offices back then was to have an executive assistant’s position – a very high level one – and I was very fortunate to have one of those with a holding company, where I was assistant to the president. That was where you got the contacts and learned what happened with the decision makers.”
She was moving up in the world of business and finance, when she decided after the third corporate office relocation and her boss’ death to look for something closer to home. With financial skills in her portfolio, she was in the process of getting her stockbroker’s license when she was injured in the plane crash. She returned to work after six weeks of recuperation, and the very first handicapped parking space in Sussex County, New Jersey was established for her.
Starnes was involved in her Sussex County community, with plenty of time in the evening for extra-curricular activities. She was asked to run for public office as an elected member of the Sparta, New Jersey Town Council in 1981. She was elected, and in 1984, was appointed by the council members of Sparta to become their mayor. She was the first female ever to serve on the town council, and the first person with a disability.
“I hadn’t really thought of myself as a public official,” Starnes recalls. “I thought of myself as a good citizen, and very much interested in how my community was growing, and the community agenda, and honestly didn’t see many other people with disabilities participating at that time. I still wanted to contribute to my community in any way I could that would be productive and helpful”
During this period, the Board of Chosen Freeholders (the title held by New Jersey county commissioners) selected her to be the liaison from the county to the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981). This is where she learned about the vision of Alan Reich, the founder of the National Organization on Disability (NOD), which was established the next year. Reich would tap her skills and hire her for NOD. She worked with him until his passing in 2005, and continues to serve NOD today.
In 1988, Starnes was asked by the New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders to set up a unit of county government to deliver programs and services for its citizens with disabilities. It was people with disabilities who taught Starnes about their diverse issues, she recalls, and she developed programs and services to meet the needs of the New Jersey rural population.
The 1990’s were public years for Starnes. She was encouraged to run for the Miss Wheelchair New Jersey Pageant, which she won. There she met her future husband who encouraged her to head up the largest U.S. non – profit members organization for people with spinal cord injury and disease – the Paralysis Society of America, where she served as chief operating officer. She did significant work for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, (The chief funders of the Paralysis Society), meeting Senator Bob Dole, President Clinton and other high – level politicians, giving visible credence to the message of people with disabilities through her presence as a woman with a wheelchair. In 1998 she was commissioned by the United Way to bear the torch on its way to the Atlanta Olympics. And in 2001 she joined Alan Reich, and was honored to serve along side him as NOD chief of staff.
Starnes’ accomplishments for people with disabilities come from her unique ability to work behind the scenes and make people comfortable with new ideas. There are several keys to the way she successfully serves the disability community and its needs.
“Coming out of public life and public service, and hopefully having learned something from the civil rights movement of the ’60’s and the women’s rights movement, in a large-scale movement like this, there have to be connection points that are comfort zones for people who are not already part of that movement. It doesn’t mean that the person leading that parade – the most aggressive one – is going to be the place where everyone is comfortable coming into that company. So I tend to be more subtle, probably work more behind the scenes, and really appreciate a broad background of people’s views.”
Starnes’ business experience has been invaluable in her work as a public servant.
“My business background helps me recognize what the barriers are for the people and find ways to break down some of those barriers. When somebody says, ‘you can’t do it because …’ then you start thinking about things from where you want to go to how you put that shovel in the dirt. How do you begin to build the foundation that will lead you to the end that you desire?”
Starnes continues to work at the head and behind the scenes to help people with disabilities fully participate in their communities.
“You have to recognize that there are a lot of people who are affected by folks who have disabilities; whether that means an economic impact because people with disabilities can or cannot get jobs, shop in stores. It’s a matter of thinking things through and being sensitive to a lot of different perspectives and elements that must be considered if you are going to be successful.”
Nancy Starnes continues to live and work in Washington, D.C..