Susann Sears, Kevin Fritz, Pat Malik
Harold Scharper Award recipient Kevin Fritz is flanked by Susann Sears, director of Beckwith Residential Support Services, and Pat Malik, director of the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services

A Journey to Empowerment

Kevin Fritz heard the word “can’t” frequently when he was a child. Today, he is an accomplished attorney in a prestigious Chicago law firm. He described his journey to independence in accepting the 2018 Harold Scharper Award from the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services.

 

Kevin Fritz’s disability made his childhood difficult. People noticed his wheelchair before they noticed him. The severity of his disability made it impossible for him to perform the tasks of daily living for himself, and he was often hospitalized with intense illnesses. Despite all of this, he had a strong will to succeed.

 

So when his health finally stabilized during high school, his thoughts immediately turned to taking advantage of opportunities. It was the first time he felt empowered in his life.

 

“That was the first time I truly felt authority or power to do something,” he said. “And I did. I immersed myself in academics. I tried to learn things. I tried to become more articulate, sensitive, ambitious.”

 

In his junior year, he came across an article in New Mobility magazine that listed the top ten universities for people with disabilities. What intrigued him most about the article were the photos of people in wheelchairs.

 

“They were doing things, going to classes, wearing clothing that wasn’t from a hospital. It was fascinating,” he said.

 

The University of Illinois was at the top of the list. Although this Pennsylvania resident wasn’t even sure where Illinois was, he called the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) and spoke with Susann Sears, who now directs the Beckwith Residential Support Services program for people with severe physical disabilities who require personal assistants. She recommended a campus visit.

 

“She said I could take a tour on a special bus that was accessible and see the place where I would live with other students and get care,” he said. “That was the second time in my life that I felt empowered.”

 

His father drove him 12 hours for the visit. The ride home was quiet, with Kevin feeling “shell-shocked and elated.” His father broke the silence, saying, “Kevin, if you can get in, you can go.”

 

At Illinois, Kevin learned how to maximize his quality of life. He credits Susann in particular with igniting a fire in him to push back when people said no. “She fought for me to change what is commonplace,” he said. “I have rights. I’m allowed to be here. I deserve to be here.”

 

He seized opportunity after opportunity, becoming the first student with a known physical disability to be elected to the Illinois Student Senate, which he also chaired, and to serve as director of the Illini Union Board. A student in Community Health, he served as president of Future Health Care Executives, the largest student organization in the College of Applied Health Sciences, and of the rehabilitation service fraternity Delta Sigma Omicron. He landed coveted internships with then-Senator Barack Obama and with Lynne Barnes, vice president of hospital operations at Carle, who encouraged Kevin to apply his analytical mind and passion to law school.

 

During his studies at Washington University School of Law, he served as the primary editor of the Washington University Journal of Law & Policy, as a board member of Wiley Rutledge Moot Court, and as executive director of advocacy for the National Association of Law Students with Disabilities. He won several mock trials as well as an Excellence in Oral Advocacy Award. As an associate in the firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP, he counsels clients on a wide range of employment issues. His courtroom experience covers the full spectrum of litigation. He co-chairs the firm’s All Abilities Affinity Group, which focuses on inclusion in the workplace, and speaks extensively on disability and diversity issues throughout Chicago.

 

Looking back on his days at Illinois, Kevin is grateful for the many opportunities that he had through his affiliations with AHS and DRES. He considers the University of Illinois to be a mechanism that allows people to master their lives, adding that he is very honored and proud to have mastered his own.

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