A Victor for People with Disabilities
August 4, 2014 | by Dan Shine
LSA alumnus Jim Neubacher’s work as a reporter made people aware of him and his talent. His “Disabled in Detroit” column raised awareness of people with disabilities and their rights.
Jim Neubacher (’71) had a reputation as a dogged and determined reporter at the Detroit Free Press. He would often pull a U-turn to follow a police car or fire engine in case there was a good story at the end of the run.
Once, while watching a Detroit Tigers game from the upper-deck bleachers of the team’s venerable old stadium, he saw a police officer chasing someone in the lower decks. Instinctively, he leapt to his feet, climbed a nearby ladder, and ran along the very high, very precarious roof to get a better look at what was going on.
“There was no calculation about what it would mean to his safety,” says his then-Free Press colleague Lou Heldman, who was at the game with Neubacher and watched his friend in bewilderment. “He just wanted to see if it was a story.”
Neubacher’s love of the story, and the chase that preceded it, began at the Michigan Daily.
A native of Detroit’s west side, Neubacher attended Cass Tech High School for two years and graduated from West Bloomfield High School after his family moved to the suburbs. The oldest of five children, he enrolled at U-M and quickly found his way to the Daily newsroom.
His father, James Neubacher, says his son was “totally smitten” with journalism. Maybe a bit too smitten.
“He was skipping classes and working till 2 A.M. at the Daily,” his father says. “He got a little warning from his advisor and he got a more stern warning from me to shape up.”
But those late nights at the Daily paid off. His work caught the attention of Free Press editors, and Neubacher got a summer internship there. When he graduated in 1971, he got a full-time job on the paper’s city desk, where his work ethic and talent turned heads.
“He was a first-rate reporter,” says Dave Lawrence, former publisher of the Free Press. “He was interested in detail, he was interested in context, he was interested in the big picture. Plus, he had all the basic human values.”
Not long after he lamented to Heldman during a game of pool at a Greektown bar that the men, seven-year veterans of the Free Press, weren’t “child prodigies anymore,” Neubacher won a coveted assignment as the paper’s inaugural Canada reporter based in Toronto.
“He loved that job in Canada because it gave him such freedom and independence,” Heldman says.
“I Think I Might Have the Same Thing”
But in 1979, about a year after he arrived in Canada, Neubacher was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). He had just written an article about a good friend who had the degenerative neuromuscular disease. He told her, “I think I might have the same thing.”
Neubacher worked in Toronto two more years before editors decided the rigors of the job had become too difficult for him. They called him back from Canada to tell him the news, but first had Heldman prepare his friend.
“It was the hardest thing I have ever been asked to do,” he says. “He was really upset because he never thought of himself as needing a whole team to support him. He liked to be independent.”
But where others might see this as a reason to wallow in self-pity—the dream job gone, the soaring career arc interrupted—Neubacher was bound and determined to press on.
In 1982, he began writing a column called “Disabled in Detroit” that would run eight years. Neubacher’s column, which was syndicated to several dozen newspapers, was the first of its kind at a major daily newspaper.
As his MS progressed, he went from using a cane to crutches to a wheelchair. Neubacher got a handicapped parking spot in front of the paper and an office on the fifth floor. When he got tired, a couple of staffers would lift him from his wheelchair onto a couch where he could take a nap.
For his colleagues in the newsroom, Neubacher’s slowly deteriorating health was startling. Gone was the lanky, energetic reporter and active tennis player. But what remained was the humorous (he called healthy people “the temporarily able-bodied”), smart friend with the luminous blue eyes and wispy hair that “curled around his collar like a poet’s,” as one colleague described. He continued to host parties—and the Top Gun Movie Club (named after the worst movie the group had seen)—at his Lafayette Park apartment.
“He was his own force field, shaping the Free Press milieu in his own image and not the other way around,” Free Press colleague and friend Pat Chargot says. “By continuing to function in the Free Press city room for so long, Jim opened our eyes to the importance of his crusade to obtain equal rights and opportunities for all people with disabilities. He sensitized an entire large newspaper to special needs—almost overnight, or so it seemed.”
At the start, Neubacher admitted he was the only person with disabilities he knew. In fact, through his columns, he became the only person with disabilities a lot of people knew. And it was through his columns that readers learned about the issues and challenges of living with disabilities.
His voice came at an important time. The late 1970s and ’80s were “an extremely vibrant, dynamic, and exciting time” in the disabled community, says Duncan Wyeth, the retired executive director of the Michigan Commission on Disability Concerns and a disability activist who has cerebral palsy himself. New buses were equipped with wheelchair lifts, but accessibility remained troublesome. Wheelchair ramps were few and far between, as were curb cuts. But legislative advancements had been made at the federal, state, and local levels, and there was momentum and enthusiasm in the disabled community.
Neubacher used his column to rally the troops.
“Walls are tumbling down in many parts of the world because of courage and dedication and refusal to quit,” he wrote in one column. “We have barriers in our own nation and our own communities that must come down, too.”
In another: “Find out what is going on and support it or oppose it. Let your voice be heard. If we want rights, we need to exercise rights.”
Raise a Little Consciousness, Raise a Little Hell
Neubacher’s columns are credited with getting the Family Support Subsidy Act of 1983 passed in Michigan so families with severely mentally handicapped children could care for them at home. A 1985 column that explored ideas about housing physically handicapped adults spawned a coalition of people interested in developing solutions to the problem. Neubacher served as the group’s first chairman.
Neubacher also convinced the Free Press to allow runners in its annual marathon to raise money for MS. Since 1982, runners have raised more than $2 million for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Michigan chapter.
In 1988, Michigan Gov. James Blanchard presented him with the inaugural Victory Award for his outstanding newspaper work on disabled issues.
Just as importantly, he pulled up the shade on his life with MS and let readers look in. "It just sort of creeps up like a cat burglar to rob you of part of your health," he wrote of his disease.
“I occasionally find myself stopping, surprised, when I roll my wheelchair past a store window, looking at the reflection and knowing deep inside that people are so much more than they appear.”
When his mobility slowed and his vision blurred, Neubacher began to use a small tape recorder to dictate his column two to four times a month. In 1989, 10 years after his diagnosis, he took a disability retirement from the Free Press. Before he did, the newspaper executives gave him a management title to increase his healthcare coverage.
His Free Press colleagues would check in on him daily, run errands for him if needed, and visit him often to keep his spirits up.
By January 1990, Neubacher was hospitalized. A tracheostomy and a spell on a ventilator temporarily robbed him of his voice. In a February 1990 column, he wrote: “I have learned in the past 10 years what it is like not to be able to do many things—but not being able to talk was one of the rough ones. Recently, talking was what I have done best—on the phone, in person, talking was my life.”
No longer able to live on his own, he moved in with his parents in West Bloomfield. On March 16, he lapsed into a coma and was taken to the hospital. He died six days later. He was 40 years old.
In that same February column, which turned out to be his last, Neubacher told readers he wasn’t sure when he could write his next column. But he encouraged them to stay involved and rallied them with these eight words: “Raise a little consciousness,” he wrote. “Raise a little hell!"
A little more than four months after Neubacher’s death, President George Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“That didn’t just pop up overnight,” Wyeth says. “A lot of activism led up to that. Jim used his pen, used his typewriter to have a really positive impact. That was the essence of Jim.”
This article is part of a larger series about the impact of LSA students, faculty, and alumni in Detroit. Read more stories in the series:
- Detroit's Bankruptcy: A Beacon of Hope? by Stephen Henderson
- In Detroit, LSA Is on the Map by Rachel Reed, Elizabeth Wason, and Lara Zielin
Cover and top illustrations by Erin Nelson. Photographs courtesy of Detroit Free Press.