MDA Personal Achievement Award 2011

Activist and entrepeneur receives top achievement honor

Article Highlights:
  • Thomas Arrington is a renewable-energy entrepreneur, an outspoken advocate for accessible public buildings and transportation,  a stay-at-home dad and a dedicated volunteer. He has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy.
  • MDA's Robert Ross Personal Achievement Award is given each year to an individual with neuromuscular disease who has demonstrated exemplary accomplishment and community service.
  • The award was announced on the national broadcast of the MDA Telethon.
by Quest Staff on October 1, 2010 - 2:15pm

QUEST Vol. 17, No. 4

A retired gas industry executive, disability rights activist, green energy entrepreneur and father of a 3-year-old boy has been named the recipient of MDA’s Robert Ross National Personal Achievement Award (PAA) for 2011.

Thomas Arrington III, 48, from Chesapeake, Va., was chosen for the honor from among scores of recipients of statewide PAA awards, based on his personal success and achievements, and his dedication to helping others with disabilities.

“It’s a special honor for MDA to present the 2011 Robert Ross National Personal Achievement Award to Thomas Arrington,” said MDA President & CEO Gerald C. Weinberg. “In both his professional and personal endeavors, despite daunting physical challenges, he has inspired others with muscle diseases to persevere and strive not only for personal excellence, but also for the well-being and rights of others with disabilities.”

Learning to live with FSHD

After having been an enthusiastic baseball, basketball and football player for most of his life, Arrington learned at age 26 that he has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD), when its symptoms began making him fall. FSHD also had affected Arrington’s father, although not until he was 48. FSHD causes weakness and atrophy of the muscles around the eyes and mouth, and of the shoulders, upper arms and lower legs initially, with later weakness of abdominal muscles and sometimes hip muscles. Arrington now relies on a power wheelchair for mobility.

Even after he required use of a wheelchair, though, Arrington persevered in his business pursuits and education.

After 23 years of holding progressively more responsible positions with the natural gas industry in New York, the increasing debilitating effects of FSHD persuaded Arrington to retire in 2002; at that time he was a manager of gas distribution systems for most of the New York City and Long Island areas.

In 2008, he went on to become Founder/CEO of Atlantic Wind Energy, a company that promotes the use of renewable forms of energy. In July 2010, he was named president of Tidewater Biodiesel, a facility that will produce fuel from waste vegetable oil.

Helping others after his retirement

After moving with his family to Virginia because New York’s cold winters exacerbated his FSHD, Arrington devoted himself to helping others.

He was appointed to the Mayor’s Council on Disabilities in Chesapeake and became actively involved with MDA’s Fill the Boot program through the Chesapeake fire fighters. He also supports and participates in other local MDA fundraising events.

Arrington is an outspoken advocate of accessibility to public buildings and accessible public transportation, and is helping raise funds to build a therapeutic recreation center for people with disabilities. He often is asked to speak publicly about disability issues.

Arrington says he has continued to work past retirement on behalf of others with disabilities because he’s seen people who were far worse off than he who nonetheless maintained upbeat attitudes. “I want to show others that, whatever your physical disability, if you have the fortitude, if you have a smile on your face, that’s all you need to effect positive change in society,” he says.

The father of a 3-year-old son, Chase, Arrington says he has been doing “daddy day care” at home, from which he also operates his business. He also has three older sons, Thomas IV, Phillip and Travis.  

Arrington gratefully acknowledges the help of his wife, Sandra, who works full time for the federal government, as well as serves as his caregiver. Arrington says Sandra “showers me, dresses me and ties my ties” for his public appearances.

About the PAA

The Robert Ross PAA was initiated in 1992 to recognize the exemplary accomplishments and community service of people who have any of the 40-plus neuromuscular diseases for which MDA seeks treatments and cures.

It is named in honor of Robert Ross, MDA’s longtime chief executive, who died in 2006. Ross created the PAA to demonstrate to the public that disability is no obstacle to achievement.

Arrington succeeds the 2010 PAA recipient, John Quinlan of Lakeside Park, Ky. A physician and director of the MDA Clinic at the University of Cincinnati, Quinlan also has FSHD.

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