In 1984, Constance Laymon was a 17 year old high school senior in Cooperstown, NY. With three weeks left to go before graduation, she and her friends headed into the woods. When one of the friends started chasing her around, Constance darted away. Unable to see where she was going in the dark, Constance wound up plummeting off the edge of a shale cliff. She fell over 100 feet, severing her spinal cord and dislocating several vertebrae.
Constance spent several weeks in intensive care, and was told by doctors that she was now a quadriplegic who would never walk again. When thinking back on this time in her life, Constance spoke of feeling “pinned to the wall” by depression and hopelessness. She drifted aimlessly for the next few years, uncertain of what she was supposed to do now that everything had changed.
– Constance Laymon –
A Rebel with a Cause
When chronic pain forced her to move to the Albany region in order to gain access to better transportation and home care, Constance decided it was time to take a good, hard look at what she wanted to do with her life. As she would later advise others when they faced difficult situations, sometimes you have to just “put on your big girl pants and deal with it!”
In 1989, she enrolled in Schenectady County Community College, believing that “the only path to empowerment and a fulfilling life would be through education.” By 1995, she was pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Albany, and she would later go on to work on a doctorate. In February 1996, she was hired by an organization that was developing a new program for people with disabilities.
Through her new position, Constance learned about consumer-directed care, or self-direction, an alternative to traditional home care. While traditional home care keeps an individual with disabilities under the direction of a home nurse, self-direction puts the Consumer in charge. The model appealed to Constance, who tended to challenge the decisions made by her caregivers and caseworkers. “I was a rebel,” she explained. “Now I finally had a cause.”
The Birth of Consumer Directed Choices, Inc.
After just a few months, the organization Constance worked for was forced to lay off several employees, including her, for financial reasons. Constance, who had seen firsthand the power of the self-direction model, refused to give up on the idea. Volunteering her own time and money, she rebuilt the necessary infrastructure, and in January 1997, she founded her own non-profit organization, Consumer Directed Choices, Inc. (CDChoices).
CDChoices became operational in December 2001, with revenues of $1.3 million its first year. Constance was firmly dedicated to her cause, and as others learned how her self-directed care model could restore their independence, her company flourished. By 2005, CDChoices’ revenues were up to $10 million, giving the company the resources needed to help more and more people regain control over their own care. Constance gave her cell phone number to every Consumer, offering around-the-clock personal support to anyone who needed it.
Willing to Fight
This selfless dedication to others was a hallmark of how she lived. “She fought not for herself,” remembers Bryan O’Malley, of the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Association of New York State, “but for more inclusion, for less paternalism, for less medicalization, and for greater independence.” Wielding a neon pink sign that was covered in lipstick kisses and read, “I’m too SEXY for a nursing home!”, Constance was a frequent sight at protests and an active advocate for disability rights. She confronted people who parked illegally in accessible parking spaces, she educated people on the hurtfulness of insensitive language, and she complained to merchants who failed to provide proper access for people with disabilities. On one memorable occasion, she even chained her wheelchair to a stairwell to make a point about accessibility.
“She was a mentor for so many people with disabilities,” says Denise DiNoto, a Consumer in CDChoices’ program and the company’s Outreach & Communications Specialist. “She understood the strength in numbers and refused to be invisible.”
The Courage to Be Real
Constance made no apology for who she was, which in turn encouraged others to feel free to embrace who they were, too. With her direct communication style, casual use of profanity, and love of tattoos, silver jewelry, and loud rock music (especially Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine), Constance challenged stereotypes and embraced individuality.
“She was the kind of person you met once and remembered forever,”
An insomniac and workaholic, she was as likely to send emails in the late hours of the night as in the afternoon, and she kept her body fueled with a steady supply of Mountain Dew and Sweet Tarts. She taped a sign to her office door that read, “Question normality,” and in every aspect of her life, Constance Laymon was proud to redefine the norm.
“She was the kind of person you met once and remembered forever,” says Carol Durante, Constance’s long time friend and the Program Director for Consumer Directed Choices, Inc.
A Lasting Legacy
Constance passed away unexpectedly on September 21, 2012. She was 46 years old.
Constance was an unforgettable source of strength to those who knew her. She was a devoted advocate, role model, and friend, and she was never too busy to offer support to those who needed her. The organization she founded, CDChoices, has given hundreds of people with disabilities the chance to reclaim control over their care with self-direction, and her advocacy for social justice has brought hope to countless more. While Constance herself is gone, her memory and work remain with us today, leaving a legacy of courage and dedication that continues to inspire.
CDChoices would like to thank Paul Grondahl, former Staff Writer at the Times Union, for his excellent articles on Constance. Paul’s articles provided much of the content on this page. You can read his full articles on Constance by clicking on the links below.
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