RICHARD M. LASH: 1931-2002

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New Yorkers with disabilities have lost a crusader. On August 28, Richard M. Lash, founder of some of the city’s first residences for people with mental and physical disabilities, died of congestive heart failure. He was 71.

Lash and his wife, Myrta Cuadra, started Sinergia, an advocacy and service organization for low-income New Yorkers with disabilities in 1977. In those 25 years, the group has served about 20,000 families. Sinergia opened the city’s first homeless shelter for families with disabled members, and the first community residence for mentally retarded parents living with their children.

Lash also helped initiate a class action lawsuit against New York State, the landmark José P., which required the state to comply with federal rules about providing education to people with mental disabilities.

“He was an incredible advocate for kids,” said Lawrence Gloeckler, deputy commissioner in the Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities in the state’s Department of Education. Gloeckler worked with Lash to help design the model for Early Childhood Direction Centers, which help parents find services for themselves and their children.

Raised in Buffalo, Lash attended the State University of New York at Cortlandt where he played baseball and was scouted by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Doubtful he would make it to the majors, he gave up his dreams of becoming a professional catcher, and moved to Manhattan to study physical therapy at Columbia University.

Before founding Sinergia he served as the founding executive director of the Suffolk Rehabilitation Center on Long Island, one of the first multi-service centers for children with cerebral palsy. In 2000 Lash and his wife received the first Keys to Access Award, a national honor for lifetime advocates of the disabled.

He retired from Sinergia in 1998, and a year later moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, his wife’s home country, where he lived until his death.

He is survived by his wife, seven children, four step-children and 10 grandchildren. A memorial service will be held in New York City sometime this fall.