UHLC remembers distinguished alum and advocate for the disabled Kathleen DeSilva ’80

Aug. 19, 2015 – UHLC alumna Kathleen DeSilva, who was according to her doctors the longest living individual with a high level C1/C2 spinal cord injury, passed away earlier this month at the age of 63. A celebration of her life will be held this Saturday, Aug 22, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at The Heights Villa, 3600 Michaux.

DeSilva was told she would live at most a couple of years after a gymnastics accident left the 16-year-old paralyzed from the neck down. She went on to live another 47 years  and earned an undergraduate degree with honors from Rice University, a J.D. from the University of Houston Bates College of Law, served on the Metro board, and spent a career helping those with disabilities.

“Kathleen was a dominant force; a force to be reckoned with; nothing meek or mild about her,” said her husband, Peter Simmons. “She knew what she wanted to do and she was very intelligent about doing it. As one of her doctors said, ‘She took calculated risks with her life.’ “

Born Jan. 19, 1952, in New Orleans, DeSilva was the eldest of seven siblings. A sister, Anne DeSilva Smith, was only 2-years-old when her big sister fell from uneven parallel bars in a Shreveport high school gym and landed on her head, permanently damaging her spinal cord.  Smith didn’t know her sister as an active teen-ager, but she is well aware of the indomitable spirit to survive and succeed that she had as an adult. “Kathleen was always very optimistic,” she said, “and afraid of absolutely nothing.”

Confined to a wheelchair, breathing with the help of a ventilator, and typing messages on a keyboard with a stick in her mouth, DeSilva defied the odds by graduating from Rice in 1977. Her mother carried her books, took notes for her in class, and wheeled her around campus, no easy task without ramps and other accommodations in the days before passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  When her mother passed away in 1974, DeSilva carried on with the help of friends and classmates.

She went on to law school, living on campus with the help of caregivers.  UHLC Professor Emeritus Tom Newhouse who worked with her closely when she was a student called her, “a remarkable lady!”

One of her classmates, Laura Oren, who went on to teach at the Law Center for 28 years before retiring in 2014, remembered her as “lively and friendly and known by all. I don't think anyone thought about her challenges as she was really a fellow student above all.”

She graduated from The University of Houston Bates College of Law in 1980 and began working as a lawyer for the Texas Institute of Rehabilitation and Research in 1982, retiring more than 20 years later after handling all of the hospital’s legal matters as in-house counsel.  The hospital, now TIRR Memorial Hermann, treats patients with severe brain and spinal injuries and other disabilities.

DeSilva was an early resident of The Banyan, a condominium complex on Augusta near San Felipe designed and developed in the late ’70s by former TIRR patients to help people with disabilities live an independent lifestyle. The facility was one of the first in the area to address special needs pre-ADA. She met and married Simmons, a fellow resident who was paralyzed from the waist down following a motorcycle accident.

DeSilva joined the Metro board in 1998, serving as chair of the METROLift Advisory Committee and traveling to cities around the country to see how their transit systems met the needs of the disabled.

Determined to avoid a nursing home, DeSilva, Simmons, and their dogs lived with the help of caregivers in a small bungalow in the Heights.

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