Kevin McGuire promises “brutally honest” address to SAR grads

As one of the nation’s leading advocates for improving accessibility for the disabled, Kevin McGuire has traveled all over the country, consulting with such prominent clients as the New England Patriots, Live Nation concert venues, and the White House Visitor Center.

But one of his favorite memories is a note he received from a little boy who was deaf. The child had just seen a movie in a theater that McGuire (CAS’83) had worked to make accessible. The theater had installed a captioning device system that allowed the boy to understand what was happening on the screen. His note thanked McGuire for the movie, for the popcorn, and above all, for “treating him like a human being.”

“I remember thinking, oh my gosh. If this kid thinks what we’re doing—which is what we should be doing—makes him human, then we still have a long way to go,” McGuire says.

On Sunday, McGuire will draw on recollections from his impressive career and his own experience as a disabled person when he delivers the Sargent College convocation address.

“My speech will be a really brutally honest sort of address about who I am, how my BU experiences helped to shape me, and what I’ve done in my career,” says McGuire, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since an accident at age seven. “Because of my accident, I have had intense relationships with occupational therapists and physical therapists to get better and to succeed, and they have certainly played important roles in my successes.”

As CEO of McGuire Associates, a Waltham, Mass., consulting firm specializing in compliance with federal and state disability laws, McGuire has made it his life’s work to see that public venues around the country are accessible to all.

“As a national leader in business and an advocate for accessibility for all, Kevin embodies the determination, strength of character, and compassion that will serve our students well in their future professions,” says Gloria Waters, dean of Sargent College. “We believe his personal stories and experiences with health and rehabilitation professionals—and hearing about the impact these professionals have had on his recovery and his life—will instill in our graduates a very real sense of the power they have to make a difference in someone’s life.”

McGuire Associates advises on a range of issues, including policy, procedures, and training of employees, and acts as a liaison with government agencies. Most important, the firm works with stadiums and public venues to ensure that they not only meet, but exceed the requirements set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on physical or cognitive disability. The act requires, in part, that public venues provide van-accessible parking, assisted listening devices, and American Sign Language interpreters.

At the time the seven-year-old McGuire was hit by a car driven by a drunk driver, there were no laws to protect the disabled. When it was recommended that he attend a special needs school near his hometown of Newburgh, N.Y., McGuire’s parents declined. He credits his “very persistent” parents with not only fighting to keep him at his school, but for pushing him to become self-reliant by teaching him to drive, do laundry, and other life skills.

During his freshman year at BU, McGuire was a staff assistant for U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (Hon.’70), who years before had sent the young McGuire a note when he heard about his paralysis. “Kennedy had broken his back in a plane crash and eventually recovered,” McGuire says of the late Massachusetts senator. “He wrote, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’ That inspired me to go into politics.”

And he did. At BU, he was president of Shelton Hall as a sophomore and junior and worked as a President’s Host as a junior and senior. He also was president of the Student Union senior year.

He credits John Silber (Hon.’95), BU’s president at the time, for doing “accessibility things at BU that no one else did. He was way ahead of the ball game. He would challenge me, as student body president, and get in my face every day.”

Despite Silber’s efforts, says McGuire, BU wasn’t perfect. He recalls having to use the freight elevator at Warren Towers to get to the dining hall, because the passenger elevator didn’t go to all the floors. Morse Auditorium was not accessible to the disabled until his senior year, so if he had to give a speech there, his friends would have to lift him and his wheelchair up to the stage.

After the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, McGuire knew there would be a need for consultants, and he founded McGuire Associates in 1991. “I was lucky that my dad owned a small office building, so I had free rent,” he says. “I just busted my backside in the beginning, and one job led to two, and it mushroomed, and I’ve done really well.”

Currently, he is working on the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Brooklyn Nets’ new stadium, and the $350 million Rose Bowl Stadium renovation and improvement project in Pasadena, Calif. At Gillette Stadium, he recently finished a training video for New England Patriots employees, emphasizing customer service skills, like how to help a blind customer navigate a retail store or a concession stand. Other stadiums are interested in using the video as well, he says.

McGuire’s newest venture is AbleRoad, a website he likens to Yelp or Angie’s List, which will officially launch in a few weeks. The new site will allow disabled people and their families and caregivers to review any public space in the country and rate it for factors like handicapped accessibility and whether the staff is trained to assist people with disabilities.

But for now, his attention is focused on the address he will give on Sunday to this year’s graduating health and rehabilitation majors.

“I’ve had a great life, but I have also failed, and graduates shouldn’t be afraid to fail,” McGuire says. “But I never regret trying. I want to really encourage the grads to pursue their dreams.”