April Dunn, Louisiana Fighter for Disability Rights, Dies at 33


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic.

April Dunn, an advocate for people with disabilities who worked for the governor of Louisiana, died of complications of the coronavirus on Saturday in Baton Rouge. She was 33.

Her death was announced by Gov. John Bel Edwards. “April worked hard as an advocate for herself and other members of the disability community,” he said.

Ms. Dunn was a very visible presence in the State Capitol. As chair of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council, she gave frequent testimony and urged lawmakers to enact laws that could bring the marginalized into life’s mainstream. She was unable to take standardized tests, and so never received a high school degree, but helped pass a law that provided alternative paths to a degree.

“She was a voice that people respected,” said Bambi Polotzola, director of the governor’s office of disability affairs. “When she asked something of someone, you just knew it was the right thing for the right reasons.”

She was also determinedly considerate, starting each day checking off a list of friends’ birthdays and wishing each of them a happy birthday online.

Ms. Dunn was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and cerebral palsy. Her mother, Joanette Dunn, who adopted her at 5 months, said Ms. Dunn had frequent upper respiratory infections and episodes of pneumonia. “She did a lot of suffering as a baby,” she recalled. “She was always sick.”

But Ms. Dunn was also determined to find a place in the world, her mother said. “I want to help people,” she would tell her mother. “People like me.”

She joined state government as an intern in 2017 and became a member of the governor’s staff in 2018. The governor recorded a public service announcement with her to promote hiring people with disabilities.

On March 10, Ms. Polotzola said, she, Ms. Dunn and another colleague spent the day driving to meetings around the state. All three of them became ill with the virus, she said, though her own case and the other colleague’s were mild.

By Thursday, doctors told Ms. Dunn’s mother that they did not expect her daughter to survive. On Friday, she entered the hospital; paramedics warned her mother that she would not be allowed to visit. She sent Ms. Polotzola a text message saying: “I need for you to be strong. She is dying.”

Remembering the moment they were preparing her daughter for the ride in the ambulance, Ms. Dunn said April had an urgent request: “Mommy, when you come by, be sure to bring my cellphone and my notepad. I still need to wish everyone a happy birthday.”

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