By Rubin E. Grant
When Dr. Gary Edwards died on June 5 after an extended illness, United Ability didn’t lose just its chief executive officer; it lost a respected visionary, a true servant-leader and a gentle giant.
Those were some of the descriptions of Edwards, who was CEO of United Ability, formerly United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Birmingham, for 38 years. He influenced disability rights and advocacy in the Birmingham area, state, and nation, and he touched communities in a significant way while changing the lives of thousands of individuals and families.
Unique in the state of Alabama, United Ability provides a life-spectrum of programs designed to promote self-reliance, present choices and improve the quality of life for children and adults with disabilities. In 2019, United Ability served more than 5,700 children and adults with disabilities, including cerebral palsy, spina bifida, autism, Down syndrome, Rett syndrome, limb loss or deficiency, closed head injuries, and intellectual and developmental disabilities through its 10 programs.
“Dr. E.,” as he was affectionately known, also was instrumental in establishing the Project Search and Transition Services programs in the Birmingham, Mountain Brook and Hoover school systems.
He also served on numerous state and national boards and was a key figure in early intervention and employment service advocacy.
The Over The Mountain Journal reached out to a few United Ability board members and executive staff for their reflections about Edwards.
Tina E. Shaddix,
Chief Operating Officer
“He was actually my boss for about 38 years. I have to describe him as a visionary. He had a heart and passion that clearly defined him and a never-ending desire to serve others. That was his mission on Earth and he fulfilled it.
“United Ability would not be what it is if not for his vision. He was a tireless worker. We started in 1982 as United Cerebral Palsy with 25 members serving 200 participants, and he took it from 200 to almost 6,000 participants.
“He had a vision for the campus, as well. In 2001, we were in the aging Butler Building in Birmingham on the western side and moved to a beautiful facility (near Lakeshore Drive in Homewood) designed for people with disabilities. He dreamed that it could be one of the best facilities for individuals all over the world.
“He would work with anyone individually, including infants. His mantra was: babies can’t wait. He believed any delay could do them harm, so he took any referrals on newborns with disabilities. He wanted us to be an agency that provided them service throughout their lifetime.
“The passing of Dr. Edwards is an indescribable loss, for United Ability and people everywhere living with disabilities. His reach was far and wide. Our executive team and board of directors will follow the example set by Dr. E and carry on his passion for creating a world where disability is neither defining nor limiting. His vision of empowering people to Dream New Dreams will forever live in our hearts and guide us as we move forward.”
Junior Board Member
“I knew him as a patient and as a friend. He was an incredible man and a great listener. He was the absolute best whether you had any kind of disability or not, and it didn’t matter your socioeconomic background. He understood the needs of those who came to United Ability and he would give you the resources and help to give you a hand up, to see a hope and a future. He helped many families for decades.
“Whether he was talking to people with disabilities or to corporate leaders, he could relate to any of them. The world is a better place because of Dr. Edwards.”
United Ability Foundation Member
“I was a part of UCP before he came. Gary Edwards was my dear friend. He was a true servant-leader. He could never do enough for others. He was never satisfied. He was always pushing himself and the organization to do more.
“He was more than nice. He was humble, a gentle giant. He was not one to seek fame or the limelight. He was about getting the job done.
“He was the type of man who was loved and respected by everyone. I never heard anyone say a bad thing about him.
“What I’m going to miss most about him is his leadership. He was responsible for United Ability becoming what it is because of his drive and determination and kindness.”
Edwards’ family asks that donations in his memory be made to United Ability at unitedability.org/give or by mail to United Ability, 100 Oslo Circle, Birmingham, AL 35211.