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Ethel Louise Armstrong Foundation changes disability studies with endowed postdoctoral fellowship

By Andy Lee

Ethel Louise Armstrong Foundation

A $500,000 gift from the Ethel Louise Armstrong Foundation has established an endowed postdoctoral fellowship for women with disabilities. The donation is a testament to the late Lucille Owen's (front row, right) longstanding contribution to the disability community. Front row, centre: Margaret Staton, president, ELA Foundation.

A $500,000 gift from the Ethel Louise Armstrong (ELA) Foundation is bringing women scholars with disabilities to Ryerson. Starting in 2011, an annual postdoctoral fellowship will be awarded to a woman with a disability who will contribute to the interdisciplinary nature of disability studies. It is the university's first privately funded endowed postdoctoral fellowship.

The donation is a testament to the late Lucille Owen, disability activist and close friend of Margaret Staton, founder and president of the ELA Foundation, based in Santa Barbara, Calif. The two met as teenagers in the 1950s at Toronto's Lyndhurst Lodge rehabilitation centre. Lucille was receiving treatment for polio; Margaret was being treated for a spinal cord injury.

They kept in touch after Margaret moved back to the United States. In 1973, Lucille married Bill Owen, a Ryerson English professor who became a paraplegic after an industrial accident at the age of 20.

In 1995, Margaret appointed Lucille to the board of the ELA Foundation, whose mission is to promote the presence of women with disabilities in higher education. "I knew Lucille was the perfect person for the job," said Margaret.

Lucille overcame a fear of flying to attend numerous board meetings in California. In 2004, the Foundation honoured her by creating a scholarship in her name. Back in Toronto, Lucille championed accessibility issues, volunteering at the March of Dimes, the Women's Health in Women's Hands Community Health Centre, Wheel Trans and the Anti-Ableism Committee of the Toronto Housing Company.

When Bill died of cancer in 2005, Lucille established the endowed Bill and Lucille Owen Award in Public Policy in Ryerson's School of Disability Studies. Lucille passed away in 2007, also of cancer, at 63.

"This extraordinary gift celebrating the legacy of Lucille Owen will have an enormous impact on the field," said Melanie Panitch, director, School of Disability Studies. "Through this support, women scholars with disabilities will bring a critical perspective often overlooked even in disability studies."

Fellows will deliver a public lecture based on their research. Since the fellowship is endowed, it will exist in perpetuity.

"I'm ecstatic," said Ron Goldsmith, Ryerson professor emeritus and longtime friend of the Owens. "I know it would have made Lucille and Bill tremendously happy."

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