Obituary: Gregory Solas, 68

by | Aug 6, 2021

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Gregory P. Solas
Gregory P. Solas, 68, of East Greenwich, passed away August 2. He was born September 5, 1952, in Fall River, the son of the late George J. Solas, MD, and Margaret Solas. He was the former husband to Lynda Solas, who he loved and will always love very much. He was an ironworker from Local 37.

He is survived by his two sons Gregory and Derek; a daughter, Nicole; a wonderful grandson, Gavin, who made every day of his life a joy; a wonderful daughter-in-law, Lee-Ann; two granddaughters; brothers George, William, and the late Paul Solas of Mass.; and a sister, Kathleen Tedeschi, of Florida.

Gregory Solas was an ironworker who was injured on a job in 1986, and spent 8 months in Mass General Hospital and 4 months at Spaulding Rehabilitation recovering from his injuries and 13 major operations. After his hospital stay, adjusting to home life was a challenge as he had to use a wheelchair to get around. Doctors said he would never walk again and he proved them wrong as he built up strength to walk with a cane for a short distance of about 30 feet. My father made a promise to God that if he survived this accident he would take care of his family and the disabled. That is exactly what he did by supporting his family and making sure he could provide the best life and education for them. He took his family almost every year on many vacations including a cross-country trip for the summer. He always shared stories from his childhood and had so many jokes to tell. He was a man that cared so much about his family and their welfare despite the everyday pain he endured. He appreciated all kinds of music and sports and took his family to many concerts, Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots games.

Since 1980 the Governor’s Commission on Disabilities has supported, drafted, and sponsored legislation to improve the quality of life of Rhode Islanders with disabilities. The commission established the John E. Fogarty Memorial Award in 1987, to recognize the legislative sponsors of these bills.

As he has traveled on vacations, he went to great lengths to look at other schools, maintaining that “if they were violating the law in Warwick, then there must be other schools doing the same thing.” In other instances, parents of disabled children have called him or he has called schools at random to ask whether they are accessible.

As the family attended many games and concerts, we found the seating at these events were not safe for him, and did not follow the law. Gregory and his son picketed Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in the 1990s because of their policy that a wheelchair guest sit behind their companion, while the law allowed a companion to sit to the side of the wheelchair. The wheelchair seating section was also too small and wheelchairs would bump and rub others as they went to their spots. Gregory’s son saw others hurt by the chairs running over people’s feet because of the cramped conditions. This has since been fixed, and enjoying shows by Gregory’s side brought the family some normalcy.

Since 1990, he has filed complaints against nearly 2,000 schools, colleges and universities over the absence of ramps for wheelchairs, signs for the visually impaired and other accommodations required by Federal law.

Lawyers at the Education Department’s regional Office for Civil Rights in Boston say 25 percent of their workload consists of investigating his complaints.

“Some people play golf,” Mr. Solas said. “I file complaints.

Aggressive advocacy for disabled children is nothing new. But in recent years more and more parents and other advocates like Mr. Solas (whose own three children are not handicapped) began filing complaints. The Department of Education received three times as many complaints in the 1993 fiscal year as it did in 1987. Of Mr. Solas’s nearly 2,000 grievances, many of which have been resolved, virtually all were filed under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires public buildings, public programs and private groups and schools that receive some form of Federal aid to be accessible to the disabled.

The remaining complaints cite the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which expands protections for the disabled to employment and public services. The Education Department says his complaints are usually upheld and lead to agreements with school systems to upgrade their buildings.

“He is a very accurate advocate,” said Norma Cantu, the new Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights. “Is he a thorn in my side? By no means. If anything, he is highlighting the need to inform public schools and colleges and universities about the law.”

In 1990, he took on the Warwick Public Schools, a system of 28,000 students, 1,800 with physical or learning disabilities. He remembers being unable to negotiate the entrance of an elementary school where the parent-teacher organization meeting was held. He says he was told to go home; the district would send him a videotape of the meeting. “All of a sudden, I was a guy who was a pain in their behinds,” he said. Mr. Solas said he refused the videotape and instead staged a one-person picket outside the school administration building during a late-winter storm. He ultimately filed a complaint with the Education Department, which forced the school system to renovate its administration building. The parents’ group finally moved its meeting to a site more suitable for Mr. Solas’s wheelchair.

He took on the district again a year later when his daughter’s school held a father-daughter dance in a building that could not accommodate his wheelchair. The school system moved the dance. Later, he filed still another complaint, this time over plans to hold graduations in an auditorium that was not wheelchair-accessible. The district relented and made arrangements to accommodate Mr. Solas.

“The law is the law,” he said. “It does not mean you can do it halfheartedly.”

Since he first took on the Warwick Public Schools, Mr. Solas, who can walk with a cane but uses a wheelchair most of the time, says he has spent thousands of hours and more than $6,000 of his own money to right the wrongs he sees in wheelchair access for schools.

Going to Celtics games as a family was awesome but seating was always hard to come by. Gregory found that the Press core took up the whole section of handicap seating; he took some pictures and fixed it, allowing his family to see more games together. He did not want any money for his role, but they gave him $5,000 which he said he would donate for a good cause.

Gillette Stadium (then Foxborough) had a similar situation as Great Woods where its handicapped seating area was undersized and people were  getting their toes hurt when wheelchairs were accommodated. Renovations to the stadium addressed this problem, ensuring compliance with the law. Similarly, there was a time his family wanted to go to a haunted house but Gregory could not get access. His advocacy ensured that wheelchair access is now included for those who want to attend.

He was invited to the White House South Lawn in 1992, to celebrate the anniversary of the ADA.

In 1993, the Commission created the Joseph Vanni Memorial Award to recognize the role of the average citizen in the enactment and implementation of laws to improve the quality of life of children and adults with disabilities. Gregory received the Joseph Vanni Memorial Award in 1993.

Gregory received many calls from people all over the county requesting help for their family members in regards to access for the handicapped and adherence to the law. He invested a lot of time in these matters, but at the end of the day, he was to be able able to help people. The next time you are at a movie theater and see the handicap sections, think of him, as he advocated for many of these seating sections to be included.

Gregory Solas was a loving man that loved his family and always put them first. He was proud and always stood up for what he believed in. He loved to help others. He loved and will always love his grandson, Gavin, forever; they had such a special bond.

Rest in peace, Dad. Love, Gregory XOXO

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated Tuesday, August 10 at 10:00 AM at Our Lady of Mercy Church in East Greenwich.  Burial will be private.  Calling hours:  Monday, August 9, from  5- 8:00 PM at the Hill Funeral Home, also in East Greenwich.

You can leave an online condolence at the funeral home HERE.

From People Magazine (September 20, 1993: page 95, 97)

GREGORY SOLAS HAS A FANTASY: What if a wealthy benefactor came by and handed over the keys to a helicopter? “There would be a video camera in it,” he says excitedly. “I would fly across America and fly down to take pictures of all these buildings with no wheelchair ramps or any kind of disabled access. I would be like Schwarzkopf!”

Coincidentally, Solas, 41, is something of a one-man Desert Storm, even without the helicopter. But so far, his battlefield has been mostly confined to Rhode Island, where he lives. Over the past four years, Solas has filed some 2,000 legal actions to force school districts, government agencies, and businesses to comply with often-ignored federal laws that require buildings to be accessible to people with disabilities. Across the state, dozens of schools, restaurants, municipal buildings, movie theaters, concert halls, libraries, and other public facilities have spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars building ramps, widening doors, refitting bathrooms, and lowering signs.  “I only ask for the minimum,” says Solas, who had to use a wheelchair more than seven years ago after a construction accident on the highway. “This isn’t even like Rosa Parks, who wanted to sit in the front of the bus. We are still trying to get on the bus. ”

Solas’ zeal is not entirely welcome in recession-scarred New England. According to one report, it can cost between $20,000 and $200,000 to make just one school completely wheelchair-friendly. “There has to be some give and more, but people like Solas just don’t understand that. It makes him feel bad,” said Paul Lemont, East Providence City Manager, who faced Solas last year over what Lemont said were ‘minor infractions’. “He wants every building to be fully accessible. In a utopia that would be fine. But we don’t live in that situation.” Solas, however, has little sympathy for local governments that try to operate with limited resources. “I don’t have time for crybaby discriminators,” Solas says. “This is America. Everyone is treated fairly.”

Solas’ crusade began on a frigid January afternoon in 1986. At the time, he was an ironworker and helped build a flyover on Route 25 near Bourne, Massachusetts. Suddenly, a 120-foot steel girder fell on him and crushed his pelvis. As he lay there, he said, he had “an automatic communication” with God. “If I believe out of this, I will help the disabled,” Solas recalls promising.

In the first hours after the accident, doctors gave Solas only a 10 percent chance of survival. But after 13 surgeries, he was released from Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston in February 1987. During his three-year recovery, he reached a settlement with the contractors involved and received enough money — he won’t say how much — to support his wife, Lynda, 42, and their three children (Gregory, 16, and twins Nicole and Derek, 10) as he devotes himself to his new calling. “Some people play golf,” Solas has said. “I’m filing complaints.”

Solas attributes his zeal to an unhappy childhood in Fall River, Massachusetts. His parents, George, an orthopedic surgeon, and Margaret, a homemaker, divorced in 1965, when Gregory was 13. The domestic unrest disturbed him deeply. Today he has little contact with both parents. “I’ve always loved them,” Solas says, “but they didn’t listen enough.” Now, as a disabled person, he is determined to be heard. “I’m not going to live a second life of oppression,” he says.

Solas, the third of five children, lived with his mother until his senior year of high school in nearby Taunton. He shared an apartment with friends until graduation, then moved around New England, taking college courses in business while working in construction. In 1975, he met Lynda, a receptionist at the hospital, and they married the following year. They settled in Warwick, RI in 1989.

Solas’ first bail as a disability advocate came later that year when he looked to Warwick’s public schools for holding parent-teacher meetings in a building that was off-limits to wheelchair users. Within a year, he began investigating complaints from other disabled people; he has also expanded his own investigations to eight other states. But his favorite fight involved a father-daughter dance sponsored by the Parent-Teacher Organization of Warwick’s EG Robertson Elementary School three years ago. He wanted to go with his daughter, Nicole, then 6, who is not disabled. But the dance hall had neither a wheelchair ramp nor a converted bathroom. Solas says his complaints angered some PTO members. At one meeting he recalls: “Eventually, the site was modified to meet [my] requirements. I did it for my daughter,” Solas says. “I didn’t want my daughter growing up and asking me, ‘Dad, why didn’t you try?’ When people say, ‘Somebody should do something,’ well, I’m that guy.”

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