Farewell to Jim LaBelle, Quadriplegic & Lawyer, Paralyzed for Nearly 55 Years

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There are certain individuals that go under the radar their entire lives despite being one of the most resilient people in the room, and that is without question Jim LaBelle. A father, world traveler, lawyer, disability advocate and professor, Jim’s story isn’t well known to many, but we hope to change that. A quadriplegic since 1969 and passing on April 21st, 2024, he was paralyzed for nearly 55 years and showed a life can be well lived in spite of paralysis.

The Accident

Jim was determined to live his life his own way after his diving accident at 18 years old in Lake Independence, Minnesota. In the early days of his injury while in undergrad, he gave into his adventurous spirit and went out gallivanting across the globe in the 1970s, which was unheard of at the time for anyone with a SCI. Throughout his travels, he visited 26 countries.

There is a funny story he shares about breaking his leg in Spain. “In the late 70’s I was in Es Calo, Formentera, an island off the coast of Spain. I was with my friend Mark, my right femur was broken and I would get light headed when I sat up. We were waiting for a cab, and were later told someone drove by and thought I was dead. After a ferry to Ibiza, a plane to Barcelona, a train to Luxembourg, a plane to Chicago, and a Greyhound to Minneapolis, I got a cast on my leg.”

Adulting Years

After winding down his world travels, in 1980 Jim decided to go to law school at the University of Minnesota, and graduated with honors in 1983. During his law career, he worked for Dakota Planes Legal Services in 1984 and then moved on to the Housing Service Center in San Jose, California. And since he worked in various states as a lawyer, he had to pass the bar exam in three different states, which by itself is monumental.

As a lawyer, it was only natural that he went on to become an educator and disability advocate, and he made sure to speak up and use his voice whenever he could. He taught for a few years at Saint Petersburg College when he lived in Florida in the early 90s with his dad. And in 1999, he advocacy landed him in the main paper in Seattle, Washington, when he couldn’t park his van at a sporting arena due to a lack of accessible parking.

It was also during this time that Jim became a single father, which he shares at length in his must-read (reluctant) memoir, Wheelchair Bound: A Memoir of 50 Years Pushing. As he grew older, those who knew Jim pushed him to finally share his life on paper, which he published May, 2023. Last year he also wrote an opinion piece on disability for the Minnesota Daily, the official publication of the University of Minnesota.

Titled, Disability Can Honor Each Person’s Uniqueness, he wrote an essay on how being disabled does not mean being disempowered. “Can one be both disabled and proud?” he asked. “Why does it seem disability and pride are not often mentioned together?” “Before becoming disabled I was oblivious to the hurdles people with disabilities faced.”

A stalwart to the end, he was still driving his 1987 Ford Econoline in 2024, just weeks before his death. Jim made the most of every day and every year he was paralyzed, and we love him for it. We will leave you with one of his best quotes. “Don’t call me ‘bound’ or ‘confined’ to my wheelchair. My wheelchair is my freedom.”

Rest in Power Jim LaBelle. Your did good.

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Jim hanging out in Spain

Jim with his son

Jim in his 1987 Ford Econoline


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