Denied a diploma, April Dunn made sure other students with disabilities had options. She died of covid-19.
By Derek Hawkins
April 18, 2020
By all accounts, April Dunn was a model high school student. She made the honor roll every term. She participated in Junior ROTC. In four years, she never missed a day.
But Dunn, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and cerebral palsy, couldn’t pass the standardized tests that were required for graduation. When she crossed the stage with her class at Glen Oaks High School in Baton Rouge, La., there was no diploma waiting for her — only a certificate of achievement.
Nearly a decade later, after struggling for years to find fulfilling work, Dunn became the driving force behind a state bill to provide alternative graduation paths for students with disabilities. Working with a group of advocates, Dunn testified in committees and spent long hours meeting with legislators, explaining how being denied a diploma made her feel undervalued and shut her out of jobs for which she was qualified. Her story brought some lawmakers to tears.
The bill, Act 833, passed unanimously in both chambers in 2014, and ultimately helped her land a job in the administration of Gov. John Bel Edwards.
“That changed the landscape,” said Bambi Polotzola, director of disability affairs in the governor’s office, whose autistic son will graduate with a diploma because of the legislation. “It put a face to the issue.”
Dunn, 33, fell ill with coronavirus-like symptoms in mid-March after returning from a work trip with Polotzola and another colleague, during which they spoke with people in southern Louisiana about advocating for accessible and affordable housing. All three women tested positive for covid-19. Dunn died in a hospital March 28.
Her death underscored the virus’s merciless impact on people with disabilities and underlying health problems, who face vastly greater risks of hospitalization and fatal infection than the rest of the population.
Dunn was well aware of the dangers. In her last Facebook post, shared shortly after she developed symptoms, she uploaded a picture of herself and some friends, along with an inscription reading: “Only the vulnerable will be at risk. Your ‘only’ is my everything.”
News of Dunn’s death fell especially hard on Louisiana’s disability community, where her tireless work advancing the rights of society’s most marginalized earned her many admirers.
“She was a humanitarian in the best sense of the word,” said her colleague Jamar Ennis, assistant director of disability affairs in the governor’s office. “To put it simply, she’s the most determined person I’ve ever met.”
She was also a highly respected presence in the state capitol, unafraid to call officials at all hours of the day to discuss her efforts. “She brightened everyone’s day with her smile, was a tremendous asset to our team and an inspiration to everyone who met her,” Edwards said in a statement.
Dunn was born July 6, 1986, and grew up in Covington, La., and Baton Rouge. Her biological mother put her up for adoption as an infant. She was adopted by Joanette Dunn, a teacher, at 5 months old.
“I was told by a social worker, ‘I don’t know if this baby will ever walk or talk,’ ” Joanette Dunn recalled. “I looked at that baby and said, ‘There’s more to her than meets the eye.’ ”
Dunn lived in a tightknit household with her mother and grandmother, who taught her not to let her disabilities hold her back. She earned a red belt in karate, sang in choir and was involved in the ladies auxiliary at her church. On weekends, the family would go shopping at Walmart, get their hair done at the salon and eat lunch together in town. When she wasn’t hanging out with them, she liked to sing karaoke with her friends at a local recreation center.
Dunn found her calling in advocacy work while attending community meetings for people with disabilities. It was in that setting that she linked up with some of the organizers lobbying for Act 833, which had idled in the legislature for years before Dunn became involved.
When then-Gov. Bobby Jindal signed it into law, Dunn stood by his side. At home, she framed the original bill and hung it on her wall. Nearby, she also hung a letter she received from President Trump in 2019 commending her for “fearlessly advocating for inclusive educational and employment opportunities” in her state.
Dunn quickly rose to become vice chair of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council, one of the state’s most powerful disabilities organizations. During a quarterly meeting one year, the council chair called out sick at the last minute, leaving Dunn in charge of the intense two-day forum with policymakers, advocates and families.
“Everybody was blown away from her ability to manage it,” Polotzola remembered. “Her ability to lead in a professional way was very evident in that moment.” Dunn was elected council chair shortly after.
She joined the governor’s office of disability affairs in 2017, eventually becoming senior coordinator, a role in which she monitored legislation, assisted in meetings and conducted outreach.
Dunn and Edwards had a special relationship, her colleagues said. It was on full display in 2018, when the governor invited her to film a video with him encouraging businesses to hire people with disabilities.
A couple of weeks before they sat down to shoot the video, Dunn had asked Edwards to attend Mass with her, but he never followed through, according to her mother. As soon as the shoot was over, Dunn confronted the governor for not getting back to her right away. “She said, ‘What’s your problem? You’re Catholic! You should be going to church anyway!’ ” her mother recalled. “Two weeks later, he was at our church.”
The moment captured Dunn’s fighting spirit perfectly, Polotzola said. “Next thing you know, he’s contacting me to set it up,” she said. “I can’t recall one time that April asked something of the governor and it didn’t happen.”
At work, Dunn commanded respect. She showed a mastery of disability issues and was quick to speak up when a policy or program wasn’t inclusive enough, colleagues said.
“When she talked, people listened,” Ennis said. “She realized that important work had to get done, and she didn’t stop until she got some resolution on it."
Beyond her advocacy, nothing brought Dunn joy like celebrating birthdays. She planned her last one months in advance, ringing in her 33rd year with dancing, karaoke and a banquet at Mike Anderson’s seafood restaurant in Baton Rouge. Every day, she woke up at 4:30 a.m., signed into Facebook and checked her calendar to see who among her friends was turning a year older. “Three hundred sixty-five days a year, there was somebody on that list,” her mother said.
When the paramedics came in late March to take Dunn to the hospital, she worried she wouldn’t be able to send her daily birthday wishes. So she asked her mother to bring her cellphone and notebook with her, not realizing that her mother couldn’t join her in the intensive care room.
In one of their last conversations, Dunn’s mother told her how proud she was of the woman she had become.
“She touched a lot of hearts,” her mother said. “She did this all on her own.”