John E. Winske, of Boston, a disability rights leader, fierce advocate for the independent living community, and savvy entrepreneur, died on Nov. 20, 2020, while in Florida. He was 58.
Born in Marlborough on June 6, 1962 with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, John was the son of the late Earl “Jack” Winske and the late Patricia (Kelley) Winske of Marlborough who owned the Flower Basket florist shop on Main Street. He was also the brother of the late Paul Winske of Orange. John is survived by his brother Robert Winske of Medford, his uncle Paul Winske of Marlborough and his mother’s longtime companion John Usinas of Marlborough. He also leaves behind his longtime friend and business partner Liz Hardy Jackson of Hyde Park and his oldest friend and mentor, Kirk Joslin of Holliston.
John graduated from Marlborough High in 1980. He was manager of the school’s basketball and football teams including the year the Panthers won the 1979 Super Bowl. Later, he graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Advocacy was instilled in John at a young age as his mother fought to ensure their local public schools were accessible for children who use wheelchairs, including two of her sons. Eventually, she and all three of her sons used wheelchairs. By the age of 15, as part of an Easterseals youth program, John was urging members of Congress to improve access to housing and transportation for people with disabilities. In the 1980s, he was among a group of disabled Boston Celtics fans who chained themselves to the gates of the old Garden to protest the removal of wheelchair-accessible seating. He helped found the nationally recognized Easterseals Technology Center for people with disabilities in downtown Boston; consulted on accessibility for the MBTA and businesses such as Dell Computer; and testified on Capitol Hill in support of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
John’s dedication to people with disabilities spanned decades. He served as executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities and later directed fundraising for the Boston Center for Independent Living. His career culminated in leadership of the Disability Policy Consortium (DPC), a statewide organization with a goal of equal opportunity for all individuals with disabilities. He was a board member from the DPC’s inception in 1996 and served as executive director from 2014 until his retirement last year. Under John’s guidance, the DPC became an influential advocacy group and think tank at the local and national levels.
Colleagues described John as a cowboy-style leader, inspirational and unafraid to improvise because of his trust in his instincts. He could be showy and stubborn, and won people over with his sharp sense of humor. Breathing issues couldn’t stop his momentum. John steered his powered wheelchair through the political and business worlds. In 1990, he was in the audience on the South Lawn of the White House as President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA, the first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities. In 1996, he launched a travel agency specializing in serving people with disabilities seeking accessible adventures. His volunteer work included a four-year appointment to the Governor’s Task Force on Hate Crimes (appointed by Governor Dukakis) and, with the DPC, spearheaded efforts to install curb ramps on the streets of Beacon Hill.
As a kind and thoughtful mentor, John encouraged many young people to become leaders and activists in the disability rights movement. He was a lifelong Red Sox fan who coached Little League baseball players in Medford for a few seasons – after challenging a discriminatory rule that barred wheelchair use on the field for safety reasons.
In recent years, the self-described unrepentant gambler proudly checked off his bucket-list item, “Buy a racehorse.” His self-described tiny share of a horse named Authentic paid dividends as a rare moment of delight in dreary 2020 when the thoroughbred won the Kentucky Derby.
John will rest in peace in Marlborough with his parents and brother. A memorial service honoring John’s life and legacy will be held at a future date. In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be made to the Disability Policy Consortium and Easterseals Massachusetts.
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