Maria Brown, DO, was an advocate for people with disabilities long before she became one herself. As a teenager growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the early 1970s, she befriended a group of young adults with disabilities who were involved in protests for greater access to public transportation.
Brown, assistant professor of family medicine and attending physician, Rush University Family Physicians, has remained passionately committed to the rights and needs of people with disabilities to this day. In the 1990s, she helped found the Association of Horizon, which raises funds for a camp for adults with muscular dystrophy. Since 2002, she has been the attending physician for Misericordia, a home for more than 600 children and adults with developmental and physical disabilities on Chicago’s far North Side.
Brown also has made an impact on the understanding of disability at Rush. She arranges for people with disabilities to speak to Rush Medical College students during the first-week orientation and the mandatory third-year family medicine clerkship. She also serves on Rush’s Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Committee.
Brown is personally familiar with disability. As an adult, she developed a degenerative spine condition, and she uses a walker to assist with her mobility. Nonetheless, she maintains a busy schedule, arriving for morning rounds at 5:30 a.m. in order to complete them before moving on to her many other duties — which also include serving as volunteer medical director of Pilsen Homeless Services, a shelter near Rush.
In recognition of her many contributions, Brown was chosen to be this year’s recipient of Rush’s Eugene J.-M.A. Thonar, PhD, Award. Named for an internationally known Rush professor of biochemistry and orthopedic surgery, the award is given annually to a Rush employee, faculty member, student or volunteer whose efforts further Rush’s commitment to accessibility and to providing professional and educational opportunities to people with disabilities.
Marking the 20th anniversary of this honor, Rush CEO Larry Goodman, MD, presented the award to Brown at an Oct. 20 ceremony.
Brown, who came to Rush in 1994 after working for a community health center in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, spoke with Rush writer Kevin McKeough about her lifelong involvement with disability issues and being a member of what she describes as “a minority group you can join at any time.”
How did you become involved with the disability movement?
I was an average teenager who became acquainted with some disabled young adults. They were activists blocking buses in the early ‘70s to get access to buses. I was just this kid who would push your wheelchair, drive your van. We got kicked out of everywhere — Ravinia, the beach. If we went to the movies, we were a fire hazard. Back then it was a really radical act to go out to dinner.
It made me aware of a lot of issues. If I am a good physician, I would attribute it to these experiences.
Why did you become a physician?
I always wanted to be a doctor. Our family doctor was a big influence on me growing up. I liked the idea of serving whoever came in. In family medicine, we call it the concept of the undifferentiated patient. You don’t have to be a certain age or have a certain condition. I liked treating patients through the life cycle, and I like treating families.
Can you talk a little about your involvement with Association of Horizon?
After the Muscular Dystrophy Association stopped funding camps for adults in 1992, we formed Association of Horizon, which is a nonprofit organization, and raised funds for a weeklong camp for 100 to 150 people with disabilities. They’re mainly mobility disabilities and some developmental disabilities. Adults with disabilities have the least amount of services, and for many people, this is their only vacation. We’ve also brought a lot of Rush students and residents up there.
What about your work as attending physician at Misericordia?
Rush has a more than 40-year association with Misericordia that began with the late Rush pediatricians Roseanne Proteau, MD, and Richard Belkengren, MD. Many Rush specialists work with Misericordia. There’s a long and fruitful association, I’m just a small part of it. It’s an association that Misericordia truly treasures. They feel their clients are treated with respect and dignity.
Can you talk about your own disability?
My physical abilities have changed over time, as many people’s do. Disability is a minority group that you can join at any time. No matter how able-bodied you are, it’s a temporary condition. You’re either going to die young, or you’ll have some change in your physical abilities. All these years of being part of protests blocking buses and demanding lifts, I never thought it would be me. Whenever I go over a curb cut or get on a bus, I’m very happy that all the people who came before me got these things in order.
How do you manage all the things you do along with your disability?
You have to be extremely aware of how long things take. I still do things that I used to do. I just may not get there as quickly. You deal with it with exercise, medication. If it’s not cancer or your heart, you don’t complain about it.
I’m very grateful for all the opportunities I have. I haven’t had an alarm clock since my third year of medical school, and I’m never late. I think it means I’m enjoying life. If you love what you do, you find the energy to do it. You have to do what you enjoy. I tell the medical students, don’t pick your specialty based on prestige or economic concerns.
What is your vision of what you would do for Rush as far as helping people with disabilities?
I hope that just as Rush included universal design to accommodate people with disabilities in the new hospital building, that we include the principle of access and support for people with universal design in our hearts and in our spirits and our actions.