Union County dedicates building for national disability advocate Colleen Fraser

By Suzanne Russell Jersey Central

Colleen Fraser

National Disability Advocate Colleen Fraser

WESTFIELD — Colleen Fraser was a fighter who taught others to fight for themselves, especially those with disabilities.

Her sister, Christine Fraser said Colleen would always tell people if they didn’t like the way things were they should change them.

“Stop your crabbing and complaining and do something about it and change,” Christine Fraser said. “We all have the ability to make changes and Colleen demonstrated that.

Christine Fraser said her sister Colleen joined with other New Jersey advocates to lead the New Jersey contingent supporting the Americans with Disabilities Act at the first congressional hearing.

Colleen Fraser, of Elizabeth, an advocate who fought for the rights of people with disabilities, was killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks while on United Airlines Flight 93 on route to grant writing seminar in Reno, Nev. The plane crashed in Shanksville, Pa. Colleen Fraser was 51.

At the time of her death Fraser was executive director of the Progressive Center for Independent Living and vice chairwoman of the New Jersey Developmental Disabilities Council.

On Monday, Colleen Fraser’s birthday, Union County dedicated it’s new $11 million multiuse building at 300 North Ave. East, Westfield in Colleen Fraser’s honor. Fraser served as the director of the Union County Office for the Disabled from 1985-88.

Christine Fraser said her sister was a very outspoken person who believed everyone, including those with disabilities had the right to reside and work where they wanted as well as date, marry and have children.

“She advocated for them every way she could,” she said. “She was well known as the little redhead that could. She was a small person with a loud voice.”

Even in the hospital Fraser said her sister was always advocating for others.

“I can’t remember when she didn’t advocate,” she said.

Both Colleen and Christine Fraser were born with Rickets, a soft bone disorder. Colleen Fraser was only 4-feet, 6-inches tall and walked with a cane. She had undergone 31 operations, most when she was very young, her sister said.

Union County Freeholder Chairwoman Linda Carter said the dedication was not just the naming of a building, but it represents the purpose Colleen Fraser stood for — helping others.

“She had a reputation as a fearless advocate for the disabled,” said Carter, adding Fraser was known as a “firebrand.” “She would be proud to know that the Colleen Fraser building will help residents in need, provide life-saving EMS services, assist those looking to vote and foster those looking to make our planet a greener place.”

And Carter said the fight will not end with the naming of the building. She said fight continues for those with disabilities.

Frank Guzzo, director Union County Department of Human Services, said Fraser fought for every county to have an Office of the Disabled.

He told a story about the film My Left Foot, a story of a man born with cerebral palsy in Dublin who learned to paint with his left foot. When the film was released locally it was shown on the second floor of a Union County theater, with no handicap access. People with disabilities who wanted to see the movie, couldn’t see it because they couldn’t walk up to the second floor. With the county Office of Disabilities assistance they had a long talk with the theater owner who changed where the movie was shown.

“That’s advocacy,” said Guzzo, who praised Fraser who had formerly been in charge of the office.

“She made us more compassionate and respectful of the needs of others. Simply put, Colleen’s life made a difference,” Guzzo said. “Physically Colleen was small in stature. But her heart was huge and her legacy knows has no bounds.”

Adelaide Daskam of Elizabeth said Fraser was like a sister to her who taught her to advocate for her rights and to fight for people with disabilities.

The three-story building, located at the Union County Public Safety Complex, houses offices for the county clerk, medical examiner, weights and measures, consumer affairs, EMS operations, county superintendent of schools, and the Rutgers Cooperative Extension program. It has a garage and deck for emergency operations vehicles and resources.

The building, located across the street from the Westfield Diner, also features an energy-efficient exterior, solar panels and an geothermal heat pump system.

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