Harry Russell became Miami-Dade County’s champion for the disabled more than 50 years ago — at a time when the public was still strongly resistant to change, and federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act were a long ways away.
Russell himself knew the struggle of living with a disability, having lost his vision as a teenager. But that setback never stalled his intellectual curiosity — his love of reading simply shifted to audiobooks, or having family members read to him. Despite his blindness, he earned his degree from the University of Miami.
Russell was also deeply pragmatic, and willing to make progress one persistent step at a time. When building contractors initially fought the idea of switching to disabled-friendly building codes, Russell responded with: “Why don’t we start with something small, like the height of a light switch?”
Russell, who lived in Miami, died Monday of kidney failure, at the age of 93. Those who knew him credited his tenacity, combined with an outgoing nature, for securing key early victories in the fight for the disabled. Russell became the first-ever director of Miami-Dade’s Office of Handicapped Opportunities in 1959. The office was created in response to pleas from community advocates.
“Back then, there was an awful lot of discrimination,” said Dan Holder, a longtime county employee who worked underneath Russell for many years. Holder said county government jobs used to have strict physical requirements that essentially shut out the disabled.
Russell’s department, later renamed to eliminate the word “handicapped,” worked in both the business community and county government to secure jobs for the disabled. At first, the county adopted a “waiver” process that allowed the disabled to apply for jobs that were difficult to fill, Holder said. From there, the county would later ban job discrmination altogether aganist people with disabilities.
If Russell couldn’t get the county’s support on an issue, he’d lobby the business community, Holder said. Or vice versa. Every bit of progress created further momentum.
Just last month, a South Florida disability-oriented community newspaper, the Voice News, profiled Russell with a headline that praised him as a “pioneer for accessibility.”
In his interview with the paper, Russell said he’d promoted a variety of disabled issues, ranging from hiring practices to improved transportation to independent living.
“I used to say, ‘You can’t outlast me and I am not leaving, so why don’t we just get started,’” Russell said.
Russell’s stepson, Ron Tjerandsen, read that glowing profile to his father before he died. Russell’s own family looked at him in much the same way.
“My son called him a ‘giant.’” Tjerandsen, 73, said. “I conveyed that to Dad in his last week. He didn’t say a thing, he just smiled.”
Russell had requested no funeral service when he died — a request that the family is honoring, Russell’s wife Barbara died nine years ago.
In addition to his son and grandson, Russell also is survived by a granddaughter.
The family still keeps a framed Miami-Dade County honorary proclamation from Jan. 16, 1992 — when county leaders declared it to be “Harry Russell Day.” That document praises Russell as a “peerless public sevant whose many meaningful contributions played a vital role in enriching the fabric of local life.”