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Debra (Debbie) Bonomo

Debbie Bonomo

Debbie has been involved with the Independent Living and Disability Rights movements for decades. In addition to receiving Independent Living Center services as an individual with cerebral palsy, she has been a volunteer, staff member, board member, and co-founder and board chair of the Center for Disability Rights.

In the 1980s, as a member of the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority’s Transportation Handicapped and Elderly Committee, she led the fight for accessible buses. This led to pushback from R-GRTA leadership and even the Regional Center for Independent Living, which had a board member strongly opposed to providing this type of access and would not support further advocacy on the issue during work hours.

Debbie and other advocates formed the Transportation Advocacy Group, which continued the fight, eventually securing a commitment from R-GRTA in 1989 to put lifts on all new buses as well as a state law mandating the same.

With this accomplishment and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the group continued its work as the Center for Disability Rights. One of its first projects was a policy, “Early to Bed/Late to Rise,” which addressed the discrepancies between personal care services provided to those who pay for their own assistance and those on Medicaid. While Debbie and her husband, Joe, who also has a disability, are in the former group, Debbie spoke up emphatically on behalf of the latter. This report was credited with establishing a requirement that Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Services be available statewide.

Debbie and Joe have been active with ADAPT, first on the local and state levels and then as leaders at national actions. They have transported fellow activists to actions in Joe’s accessible van, with Debbie sharing her experiences and coaching those new to activism while on the road.  

As part of Not Dead Yet, which opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia as a deadly form of discrimination against those who are elderly, ill or have disabilities, Debbie arranged for a contingent of Rochester-area NDY activists to be present at the 1998 trial of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who was convicted of second-degree murder for his role in the death of a Michigan man.

In addition to her work on behalf of the disability community, Debbie also supports people with disabilities on a deeply individual level. As a housing specialist with RCIL and later as a community habilitation services provider with CDR, she coached those she worked with in speaking up for themselves with caseworkers and potential landlords, reinforcing each person’s independence and reminding them that they are in charge of their lives. She has also helped colleagues who do not use wheelchairs understand the challenges and accessibility needs of those who do – by having them “travel a mile on her wheels.” 

It is no exaggeration to say that because of Debbie, thousands – perhaps millions – of people with disabilities in New York and beyond enjoy a better quality of life. We are honored to welcome her to the Disability Rights Hall of Fame.