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Thomas J. Turner, paraplegic fought for accessibility for the disabled to sports venues and buses

Thomas J. Turner, a paraplegic, brought the issue of accessibility to the public's attention after being deemed a "fire hazard" for blocking a ramp at the old Memorial Stadium.
Thomas J. Turner, a paraplegic, brought the issue of accessibility to the public's attention after being deemed a "fire hazard" for blocking a ramp at the old Memorial Stadium.

Thomas J. Turner, a paraplegic who brought the issue of accessibility to the public's attention after being deemed a "fire hazard" for blocking a ramp at the old Memorial Stadium, died Sunday at his Ruxton home of heart failure. He was 57.

"I like to think of Tom as the Rosa Parks of the disability movement in Baltimore. It was his insistence on seeing a ... game at Memorial Stadium that led to all kinds of changes," said Andrew D. Levy, a partner in the Baltimore law firm of Brown Goldstein & Levy who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Law.

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"He was a catalyst for change and had a spark about him," said Mr. Levy. "He loved life and did what was right. Tom was the spirit that led the movement."

The son of John Turner, a Maryland racing steward, and Ruth Hayslip Turner, a homemaker, Thomas Joseph Turner was born in Baltimore and raised on Greenway in Guilford.

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He graduated in 1974 from Boys' Latin School and then enlisted in the Army. After being stationed in Alaska, he was assigned to Fort Campbell, Ky.

While serving with the 101st Airborne in 1978, Mr. Turner was injured in an automobile accident that left him a paraplegic.

Mr. Turner was arrested while attending an Orioles game at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 1, 1979, as he sat in his wheelchair on a ramp in Section 9 next to several friends.

According to articles in The Baltimore Sun, the city Fire Department said blocking a ramp was a fire hazard and Mr. Turner refused when police asked him to move. He was arrested and charged with "failure to obey a proper authority," the newspaper said.

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Being physically challenged "doesn't mean I lost my taste for baseball, or the company of my friends. I think I should be able to sit with my friends," he told The Sun at the time.

A month later, Mr. Turner was found guilty by District Judge Harold Lewis of creating a fire hazard at Memorial Stadium. The charges were later dismissed on appeal.

The incident galvanized Mr. Turner, and he and several others sued the city and the Orioles, contending that the stadium lacked adequate seating, bathroom facilities and access ramps for the disabled.

Mr. Turner was helped in his fight by Richard Tom Bolan, a social worker and lawyer who was also counsel to Disabled in Action in Baltimore. He represented him in the case and the subsequent appeal.

Mr. Turner's activism had a lasting effect. When the 1980 baseball season opened, the Orioles and Disabled in Action in Baltimore agreed to make 80 places in four sections of the stadium available for fans in wheelchairs, as well as provide 15 toilets specially equipped for the physically challenged and 30 special parking spaces.

Today, Camden Yards offers a limited number of wheelchairs in the Fan Assistance Centers and at the Concierge Desk on the club level that are used to transport physically challenged fans to their seats. Parking for disabled season ticket holders is available, and there are special drop-off areas. Accessible seating is available throughout the ballpark, and service animals are welcome.

After the Memorial Stadium incident, Mr. Turner and Mr. Bolan spent seven years in litigation with what is now the Maryland Transit Administration, resulting in the state agency making buses accessible to the physically challenged.

When a 13-year-old mentally disabled girl drowned when the wheelchair she was strapped into rolled into the Inner Harbor, they protested the lack of safety measures. Their efforts resulted in the city placing life preservers and other safety measures along the promenade.

"There are thousands in Baltimore who owe him a great debt who don't even know his name," Mr. Turner told The Sun when Mr. Bolan died in 2000.

"In those years, they were throwing people in wheelchairs in jail for demonstrating," he said in the 2000 interview. "Today, they travel to Camden Yards aboard light rail. ... It doesn't matter how many handicapped ramps you build if people can't travel from A to B."

Working with Disabled in Action in Baltimore, Mr. Turner served on the advisory groups that created special seating at Camden Yards and M&T Bank

There were many causes "close to Tom's heart," said Laura G. Turner, his sister-in-law who lives in Timonium, "and that was the plight of his fellow veterans."

"One of his greatest joys," said Ms. Turner, was the annual Fourth of Julyparty he hosted for the past 30 years for disabled veterans at Veterans Affairs facilities in the Baltimore area. He was also a big supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project.

Mr. Turner invented and patented a motorcycle that a paraplegic could drive from an attached sidecar. To prove its practicability, he drove it from Baltimore across country.

"He also had this great entrepreneurial spirit about him and invented a motorcycle with special controls that he tried to sell to me," said Mr. Levy.

Mr. Turner was a member of the U.S. Paralympics Equestrian Team and went to England for competitions.

He was an outdoorsman, amateur historian and the "life of countless parties," said Ms. Turner. "He never let his paralysis slow him down and traveled everywhere, and his nieces and nephews adored him."

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, Baltimore and Ware avenues, Towson.

In addition to his sister-in-law, Mr. Turner is survived by his brother, Michael H. Turner of Timonium; a sister, Patricia A. Turner of Ruxton; and many nieces and nephews.

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