My Bucknell story is not a traditional one but is filled with lessons that helped inform y future. I entered Bucknell with much excitement about he possibilities for my life. I was active and involved
and was learning the importance of a good education and
While at Bucknell, I became very ill and, soon after taking
a medical leave, contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a
neurological disorder that left me paralyzed and in a wheelchair
for nearly five years. I spent more years learning to walk again.
This wasn’t the life I had imagined, but there I was, in a
wheelchair, experiencing firsthand the kind of discrimination
that you only read about in books. The experience, combined
with my membership in Bucknell’s Concern and Action
volunteer-service club, was the impetus for my life of advocacy.
In 1989, as a result of my advocacy for persons with
disabilities, President George H. W. Bush asked me to serve as
his commissioner of disabilities. I accepted immediately and
was honored to play a significant role in the writing and
passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
When the Soviet Union was dissolved, President Bush
charged me to provide aid to orphanages and hospitals for
children in Russia. I traveled there frequently, bringing
medicine, food and whatever might improve the quality of life
for these children. On each trip, I was overwhelmed by the
need but also heartened by the humanity of the children and
On one trip I met a young girl who would become my
daughter. Tatyana, 5, was born with spinal bifida, and was
extremely malnourished. I didn’t know how long Tatyana
might live, but I knew instantly that I needed to bring her to
America and get her on a path to better health. After multiple
surgeries, I got her involved in sports to improve her health
and soon she began to thrive.
Several years later, I adopted Hannah, and a few years after
that, Ruthi, both from Albania. I had not planned to adopt
more children. But it felt right. When Hannah was 5, she had
her leg amputated above the knee due to congenital bone
issues. As Hannah grew, she chose prosthetic legs, in bold
purple and pink, to display her pride and confidence in who
she was. Like her older sister, participating in athletics made
her stronger and more self-confident.
Today Tatyana, 27, and Hannah, 20, are internationally
ranked first and fourth, respectively, in their track events.
Tatyana has become the fastest wheelchair racer in the world
and is the first person to win the Grand Slam of major world
marathons in one year (London, Boston, Chicago and New
York). And Ruthi, 16, has just received her Girl Scout Gold
Award for producing a coloring book to help elementary-school students learn that people with disabilities can do
Cheering from the stands as my daughters competed at the
Paralympic Games in Rio this summer, I was thankful for the
incredible opportunities that life has given me, and most
important, for my family members who amaze me every day
with their determination, can-do attitude and humanity.
What a happy life!
Deborah McFadden ’79 continues as a disabilities advocate and is a sports
agent who lives in Clarkesville, Md.
Longtime advocate for persons with
disabilities cheers daughters on to
By Deborah McFadden ’79
“I was overwhelmed by the need but
also heartened by the humanity of the
children and their caregivers.”
Hannah (left) and Tatyana McFadden after the women’s 100-meter
dash at the U.S. Paralympic Trials, where the sisters placed first