For Martha

By Robert Crabtree, Special Education Attorney – Kotin, Crabtree & Strong


News came recently that Martha Ziegler has passed. No matter that Martha lived a long and robust 84 years, the loss is, as our friend Julia Landau at the Mass. Advocates for Children put it, “stunning” – to think that our world will now be without her “vibrancy, passion, and vision.”

Martha was a major civil rights leader for children with disabilities. She arrived in Massachusetts in the early 1970’s, thinking, as she loved to say, that she would now be able to set aside the advocacy work she had done in Pennsylvania and devote her energies fully to family and friends, only to find herself immediately and completely immersed in organizing a coalition to help carry a new special education reform initiative – “Chapter 766” – into law.

As she saw it, the victory Martha and her coalition celebrated in the signing of Chapter 766 was not enough by any means. She well understood that without an ongoing reliable organization to educate and train parents and professionals over the long haul and to monitor and advance the promises of our special education reform act, it would be all too easy for the law to become dead letter. She turned her energies accordingly toward the creation of what became the Federation for Children with Special Needs – an agency that all who work in our field know as the gold standard of parent training and advocacy. Along with that, she dedicated countless hours to advancing the principles and many of the solutions built into Chapter 766 at the federal level, developing bonds with leaders in Congress that contributed greatly to the eventual enactment of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (now the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or “IDEA”).

Some years ago, when my now-retired partner, Larry Kotin, and I stood as co-recipients of the Martha Ziegler Founder’s Award from the Federation, I turned to Martha during my remarks and said: “Without your enormous energy and indomitable spirit, your great humor, your organizing skill among warring factions, and your pragmatic political savvy in 1972, Chapter 766 might never have come into being, and without your formation and leadership of this great organization for so many years, there would quite certainly have been no Federation for Children with Special Needs.”

There is so much more to say to and about Martha as advocates in our field begin to mourn her loss. As for me, I feel the loss not only of a powerful and sophisticated colleague in advocacy, but of a true and loving friend for more than forty years. Rest in peace, old friend.

Robert Crabtree is a partner in the Special Education & Disability Rights practice group at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts.