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Susan O’Hara

Birth Date: May 11, 1938
Death Date: July 1, 2018

Susan O’Hara of LaGrange Park, Illinois, passed away on July 1 In her home in Berkeley, California, at the age of 80. Born to Elfreda and Joseph O’Hara on May 11, 1938, Susan contracted polio in the fall of 1955 when she was a senior at Nazareth Academy High School, resulting in quadriplegia.  Through the determination and ingenuity of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Susan finished her coursework through an intercom system connecting her hospital bed to the classroom, graduating with her class in 1956.  Susan then went on to receive her undergraduate degree from Rosary (Dominican University) College and her M.Ed from Loyola University in Chicago. Susan was then employed by Nazareth Academy to teach French and US History.  She also served as Guidance Department Chair.  Upon learning of the enhanced community accessibility and personal supports available to people with disabilities, she moved to Berkeley, California in 1974.  This moved proved to be of extraordinary significance.

Susan taught briefly at Holy Names High School in Oakland before beginning decades of professional development in independent living and disability rights advocacy.  She was coordinator of the University of California’s Disabled Students Program residence program,  located in a dormitory on campus from 1975 to 1988.  She helped scores of disabled students and their families make the transition from home to college including several who used iron lungs.  Not only did she facilitate the transition for students, she also helped families and parents understand that living independently was not only possible for their children, it was essential so they could realize their own hopes and dreams.   Susan assumed the role of Director of the program in 1988, retiring from the university in 1992.  As an expert on supporting students with significant disabilities in higher education, she was frequently tapped to consult with advocates working to build such programs domestically and abroad.  Following retirement, she played a leading role in establishing and building a collection of oral histories of leaders and sustainers of the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement, and in the preservation of historical disability resources archived at UC-Berkeley’s Bancroft library.

Susan was an ardent Francophile, and traveled extensively in Europe, publishing articles on her experiences for disabled travelers.  She loved opera, poetry, tulips and peonies, Scrabble, good food and the company of her many friends.

Susan was preceded in death by her parents, and is survived by her four siblings: Edward O’Hara, Margaret Cain, Elizabeth O’Hara, and Kathleen O’Hara Gurney, and many beloved nieces and nephews.  In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Joseph P. and Elfreda O’Hara Memorial Scholarship Fund c/o Angela Broucke at Nazareth Academy, located at 1209 Ogden Avenue, LaGrange Park, Illinois 60526.  A Celebration of Life will occur at the Ed Roberts Campus on July 29th in Berkeley, California.  A small service will be held at Notre Dame in Paris, a place she visited often and loved dearly, this spring.  Notes of remembrance can be added on the website of Chapel of The Chimes at

Arrangements are incomplete at this time. Service details will be posted as soon as they become available.
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  1. Susan was my angel.

    Written by: Matthew Wangeman

    I owe my great independence to Susan! In 1983 when I visited CAL I met with Susan with my parents to decide if I could really go to School at Berkeley and live independently with supports. When the meeting was over and everyone was saying goodbye Susan looked directly into my eyes and whispered “see you next year”. She was the first person who truly saw my abilities despite my significant disability. Now I teach Disability Studies at Northern Arizona University and have a 16 year old son. I am in the middle of writing an article about the Residence Program at UC Berkeley to try to shed light onto that unique program. Susan changed my life and she was truly an angel in my life!!!

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