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Originally published Friday, October 2, 2009 at 12:10 AM

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Nancy Meltzer dies; a tireless defender of the disabled

Nancy Meltzer, a fierce advocate for people with disabilities and their families, died Wednesday after a long illness. She was 65.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Two words: Pit. Bull.

Yet nice as they come.

That's how friends described Nancy Meltzer, a fierce advocate for people with disabilities and their families, who died Wednesday after a long illness. She was 65.

A pioneer in her field, Mrs. Meltzer specialized in helping senior citizens caring for their disabled adult children — a largely invisible group, that is nonetheless growing as people with serious disabilities are beginning to live into old age. She called them "my families," and found help for hundreds of them.

"Persistence. Loving persistence. That's the theme of her life," said Cathy Lacefield, a colleague at The Arc of King County, an organization that advocates for people with developmental disabilities and their families.

Mrs. Meltzer, of Seattle, found her calling through personal experience. Her son, Adam, has developmental disabilities and at age 41 is unable to live independently.

In 1968, when Adam was born to Mrs. Meltzer and her husband, Ron, school districts routinely rejected kids simply because they had disabilities. By the 1970s, the law prevented such outright discrimination, yet as Adam continued through school, the Meltzers realized they would face a continuing series of hurdles. What would he do after he graduated? Where would he live?

Parents like Mrs. Meltzer began creating their own networks, on the fly. They learned how to be assertive, and how to smile at the same time.

Mrs. Meltzer grew up in Detroit and moved to Washington after marrying Ron in 1965. In addition to Adam, they had a daughter, Dana, in 1970. In the 1980s, Mrs. Meltzer began a long career working on disabilities issues.

In 1991, Mrs. Meltzer was hired by The Arc of King County to provide information and referrals. She noticed a distinct trend: Increasingly, she was getting calls from elderly parents caring in their homes for their disabled children, who were in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

These families received few government services. They had health problems, they were exhausted, and they were terrified about the future.

In an interview with The Seattle Times last year, Mrs. Meltzer said, "It's bleak in that society didn't plan, and government didn't plan, and for the most part, families didn't plan."

Mrs. Meltzer did. She worked tirelessly to make sure Adam got what he needed, eventually helping him get an apartment and in-home services. But she didn't stop there. She won a grant to provide help for other senior caregiver families through The Arc.

"It's one thing to care for your own disabled child," Ron Meltzer said. "It takes a lot more to care about everybody else's — and do something about it."

If Mrs. Meltzer was devoted to families in need, she was even more devoted to her two young granddaughters, filling their imaginations with trips to the ballet, to concerts and other cultural events. She showered them with toys, took countless photographs, and bought them the prettiest clothes.

She was also devoted to her friends, many of whom she kept for decades. She and her friends would travel, hike or just walk around Warren G. Magnuson Park, chattering away with each brisk step.

"I call her Miss Goody Two Shoes because she always wanted to do what was right," said friend Sarajane Milder. "But she was also a defender. She just defended the people around her who she loved."

Over the past few months, as Mrs. Meltzer became bedridden, her friends set up a schedule, one or more of them dropping by the house every night, just to sit with her. She was just that kind of person, Ron Meltzer said.

Today, the need for her work continues. Budgets for services to help families are increasingly tight. There are thousands on waiting lists. Sometimes, bureaucrats simply tell the families they can't help.

After Mrs. Meltzer's cancer diagnosis last year, when she was still able to work but knew she would not survive, she did not falter. If someone told her they could not help one of her families, she pulled her last card.

"She would say, if you don't do the right thing for this family, if you let them down, I'll haunt you," Lacefield said. "She said it with a smile. But she meant it. And if she can, she will."

In addition to her son and husband, Mrs. Meltzer is survived by daughter Dana Avedovech and her husband Jonathan; and granddaughters Katherine and Sarah — all of Seattle. She is also survived by her sister-in-law, Lois Meltzer, also of Seattle.

Services will be held at 11:30 a.m. today at Temple Beth Am in Seattle.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or

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