Don Quixote in a wheelchair: Remembering a legendary warrior for the disabled

A curious, hand-drawn picture hung in professor Andrew “Drew” Batavia’s office: a Picasso-style Don Quixote de la Mancha, with spear in hand and windmill in sight. This Don Quixote, however, was not sitting on a horse. He sat in a wheelchair.

At the age of 16, Batavia was in a car accident that resulted in quadriplegia. Left able to move only his head and neck, he refused to let his physical limitations define the rest of his life. His list of accomplishments is vast: FIU professor, White House fellow, published scholar, lawyer, activist.

Andrew Batavia picture

He died too young — at 45 years of age, passing away in 2003 — but his legacy remains for generations to come, thanks in part to a memoir he began writing before his death. His younger brother Mitchell Batavia recently completed the memoir, Wisdom from a Chair.

“Drew was amazing,” says Mitchell, a professor of physical therapy at New York University. “He adjusted to his disability and didn’t let it get in the way. I felt in denial after his injury, always hoping he would somehow become the old Drew again. But I don’t think he felt that way. He accepted the situation and just moved on from there. He picked up where he was and did what he could do.”

Having lost the use of his hands, he initially typed through use of a mouth stick, hunting and pecking with it on the keyboard. Later, he used voice-activated dictating software.

Drew was adamant about living life to the fullest. He decided to leave home to pursue higher education, eventually attending law school at both Harvard and Stanford. He also completed a master’s degree in health services research at Stanford.

He was a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. John McCain. Drew was also a White House fellow, serving as special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in 1990, the same year the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ensured equality to people with disabilities, was signed by President George H.W. Bush.

Drew Batavia (right) with his brother Mitchell Batavia (left)

Drew Batavia (right) with his brother Mitchell

Because Drew was working with Thornburgh, he helped craft the language and write regulations for the ADA.

“Drew was a leading figure in the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Drew was an extraordinary leader of the disabilities rights community. He was a compassionate teacher, mentor, and advocate and believed in civil rights for all people with and without disabilities,” says disability policy scholar Peter Blanck, professor at Syracuse University.

Drew came to FIU in 1997 as a professor in what was to become today’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. He stayed at FIU until his death in 2003, teaching a variety of health services administration courses as well as a public administration course. In his memoir, Drew relates how he became a popular professor, with his classrooms often being reassigned to accommodate more students.

“Drew Batavia had a keen and inquiring intellect, an inspiring work ethic and a passion for social justice,” says Ronald Berkman, then-dean of FIU’s College of Urban and Public Affairs and currently president of Cleveland State University. “He was an inspiration to his students, colleagues and the legal and intellectual community that was involved in research and advocacy on disability and health care issues. In addition, Drew had a wonderfully optimistic view on life, a great sense of humor and a bountiful spirit. Truly an inspiration to me and so many that had the privilege to know him.”

The cover of Drew Batavia's memoir features a hand-drawn Don Quixote de la Mancha in a wheelchair, drawn by Mitchell Batavia

The cover of Drew Batavia’s memoir features a hand-drawn Don Quixote de la Mancha in a wheelchair, drawn by Mitchell Batavia

In Drew’s office, students and colleagues must have wondered about the drawing of Don Quixote in a wheelchair.

Now the cover of his memoir, the drawing was originally something Drew asked Mitchell to draw for him shortly after his accident.

“I didn’t know at the time, but he was setting his mission very early in life,” Mitchell says. “What I realized finishing this memoir— he was that Don Quixote. He fought not the imaginary, but real injustices that kept people with disabilities from having the same opportunities as everyone else. Drew was that person, and maybe we all have the potential to become a Don Quixote in our own life’s mission. That is what I think the message of the book is.”

Find out more about Drew’s memoir, Wisdom from a Chair.

And to find out about FIU’s resources and services for students with disabilities click here.