Max Starkloff resided in St. Louis since his birth in 1937. When he was 21 years old, Max was involved in a disabling automobile accident. After an extended hospital stay and a subsequent stay with his mother for four years, the physical and financial strain associated with his care became overwhelming. At the time, the only option for someone with a severe disability was to move into a nursing home, where he resided for 12 years.
During this period, when his young contemporaries were beginning their careers, getting married, having children and buying homes, Max became frustrated with his desire to do more than merely survive his accident. He was not willing to accept the prognosis of a life of dependence for people with injuries like his. His frustrations mounted as he discovered firsthand society’s patronizing and negative attitudes toward people with disabilities and the lack of access and opportunity for an independent, fulfilling life.
Max was not about to relinquish his dignity. He used this time of confinement to create a plan to escape the bondage of institutional captivity. He learned to release his frustrations by expressing his anxiety on canvas with a paintbrush clenched between his teeth. Having discovered the joy and satisfaction of this new skill, he recognized his ability to create and envision new possibilities.
Max set out to make the necessary changes for a more fulfilling life, so that he, and others with disabilities, could live independently. From the nursing home in which he lived, Max founded a privately funded independent living center he called Paraquad. Around this time, he met Colleen, a physical therapist who came to work at the nursing home. She became excited about his ideas for independent living and joined him in his crusade. They also fell in love. Marriage followed in 1975.
When Max finally left the nursing home, they ran Paraquad as a “mom and pop” organization. Today, Paraquad is a permanent institution, providing independent living services and advocacy for thousands of people with disabilities, their families and employers.
Through Max’s accomplishments, people with disabilities in St. Louis have gained the opportunity to live independently. Below are a few of his achievements.
In 2003, Max and Colleen left Paraquad to establish the Starkloff Disability Institute. Now they are working with the St. Louis Community, and its leaders to begin changing societal attitudes about people with disabilities, by crafting and disseminating a positive message about living with disability. Their goal is to improve employment opportunities, which improves independent living and productivity, enabling people with disabilities to become contributing members of our society. Through their 40 years of work they realize that the non-disabled community must join with the disability community to ensure that disabled citizens are fully assimilated with the rest of our society.
The single most outstanding aspect of Max Starkloff’s contribution to the needs of people with disabilities is his record of achievement in developing a strong and expansive network of grassroots advocates for change. Through his direct contact with a wide spectrum of institutions and people who make the St. Louis metropolitan area a vital, accessible and growing community, he has become the community’s single most important resource and authority on disability issues. He is a dynamic example of living a full life as a person with disability, which enables him to connect civic leaders with grassroots advocates and with disability issues in a compelling way.
Max and Colleen have three children, Meaghan, Max Carl, and Emily Johanne (deceased), and six grandchildren, Maya, Talia, Kara, Jade, Lilianna, and Max.
Colleen Kelly Starkloff co-founded, with her husband Max, the Starkloff Disability Institute. During the 1970’s, she co-founded Paraquad, Inc. in St. Louis in conjunction with Max.
Ms. Starkloff has worked in the field of disability rights since 1973. She has extensive experience educating and training the disabled and non-disabled communities on issues related to employment of people with disabilities, independent living; developing new program initiatives; and coordinating activities that promoted the successful implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She served two terms as the United States Organizer of the Japan/USA Conference of Persons with Disabilities. In 1999, she joined a citizens’ advocacy group responsible for the establishment of the Affordable Housing Commission in the City of St. Louis, which oversees a $5M Affordable Housing Trust Fund. She ensured that housing created by the Trust Fund must include Universal Design features. She served as Founding Chair of the Commission. She is the creator and Organizer of 6 national Universal Design Summits which train architects, designers and builders on uses and benefits of Universal Design in home and community design.
In 2005 she introduced Disability Studies into the curriculum at Maryville University and also taught a course on Universal Design in 2010. From 2005-2010 she collaborated with the Missouri History Museum to create a 1,000 square foot exhibit focused on Disability History. Titled “The Americans with Disabilities Act: Twenty Years Later”, this exhibit remained open and free to the public for 19 months. An estimated 163,000 visitors saw this exhibit. In 2011 she established the Max Starkloff Speaker Series, to educate the public on the need to create a world that welcomes all people with disabilities. In 2011 she was presented a Doctor of Humane Letters by Fontbonne University. In 2013 she began consulting and training on issues related to employment of people with disabilities in mainstream, competitive jobs. In 2014 she was responsible for organizing advocacy efforts in Missouri to encourage Senate ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In 2016 she began a new venture, “Colleen Starkloff Talks Disability”, as a public speaker on disability issues. A university Commencement Speaker, and general speaker, Ms. Starkloff is sought after to speak nationwide on a variety of subjects related to employment of people with disabilities, disability history, the Disability Rights Movement, Independent Living and the emancipation of all people with disability. A 1993 graduate of Coro’s Women in Leadership Program, she has won numerous awards for her work in the Field of Disability. She is also a St. Louis “Woman of Achievement” for 2017. (Watch the award ceremony here.)
Her life story is captured in Max Starkloff and the Fight for Disability Rights, a biography about her late husband. The book is available in print, at the Missouri History Museum and as an ebook through Amazon.com; An audible book can be downloaded at Audible.com.