David B. Gray

Through his commitment to individuals with disabilities, and his own personal story, Dr. David Gray exhibited vision, selflessness, and passion for improving patients’ lives until his untimely death in 2015.

David B. Gray received his bachelor’s in psychology from Lawrence University in 1966; his master’s in psychology from Western Michigan University in 1970; and his PhD in psychology and genetics at the University of Minnesota in 1974. In 1976, Dr. Gray became a C5/C6 quadriplegic, changing the course of his life’s work and putting him on the path to advocacy and research on behalf of individuals with disabilities. He went on to work for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was appointed director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research by President Ronald Reagan, and was an important advocate for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. He was present when President George H.W. Bush signed the bill into law. Dr. Gray was a Professor at Washington University School of Medicine for almost 20 years.

Dr. Gray’s fundamental beliefs about disability came from his educational roots of psychology and behavior genetics. He believed attention needs to be given to changing the environmental factors (physical and social) that are barriers to participation in major life activities by people with disabilities. He emphasized that participation in work, education, family life, recreation, personal care, and community activities are as important to an individual’s health as absence of disease. Dr. Gray had a significant impact on advancing the role of psychological principles to enhance the lives of people with disabilities and promote their participation in society.

Dr. Gray developed community partnerships and programs to enhance service provision to people with disabilities, including improved access to information; training to master driving skills; providing available and accessible exercise facilities; training people to provide personal support to individuals with disabilities; fitting technologies to meet individual needs; improving parenting for people with disabilities through technology; and strategies of peer support for obtaining employment. His work on measures of community participation and environmental facilitators and barriers to full participation by people with disabilities is internationally recognized.

Dr. Gray mentored countless students and has influenced minds, policy, community-based programs, and rehabilitation processes through his leadership, science and advocacy for disability. As his friend Henry Kaiser notes, “I would apply that wonderful phrase ‘Profiles in Courage’ to Dr. David B. Gray, and also to his wife Margy. I knew Dave as a college friend and best man in my wedding. I lay under his bed at the Mayo Clinic after the accident; he was lying upside down and face down, with his head in painful traction, tears dripping from his eyes onto my face. Little did he know that a distinguished life of achievement and service to the cause of those with disabilities lay ahead of him. He became that rarest of all things, an innovator within the government bureaucracy who was able to get things and who would take responsibility for advocacy.”