When her daughter was diagnosed with autism as a toddler in 1966, Martha Hanes Ziegler knew little about the disorder.
She wondered if the shock of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination during her pregnancy caused it, or perhaps her husband George’s visits to Hiroshima after the nuclear bomb while he was in the Army during World War II, she wrote in “My Daughter, My Teacher,” a 2010 memoir about raising Mary Ann.
Mrs. Ziegler spent little time then ruminating about autism’s origins, she wrote, and instead focused on raising her “baffling, but beautiful little girl.”
A former English teacher, she questioned why Mary Ann was left to watch her younger brother, Fred, leave for public school on Long Island, N.Y., each morning while she and her husband paid for private “mediocre” schooling for their daughter.
Active in the civil rights movement of the era, she knew exclusion when she saw it, so after moving to Lexington in 1971, she joined a growing movement to require public education for all children with special needs and became a heroine to other parents struggling to raise their children to their full potential.
“She had a vision and she wasn’t willing to take no for an answer,” said Richard J. Robison, executive director of the Federation for Children with Special Needs in Charlestown. “She had this laser-like focus: This is what’s right for kids.”
Mrs. Ziegler, a longtime resident of Lexington and Cambridge who was a founder of the federation, which she led for more than 20 years, died Sept. 13 in Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge from complications following a serious fall. She was 84.
“Martha was far and away the most articulate leader who helped galvanize us all,” said Betsy Anderson of Brookline, who was raising a son with spina bifida when she met Mrs. Ziegler in the 1970s.
“The fact that we didn’t know how to do something was seen as no impediment to Martha,” Anderson said. “She’d say, ‘You know what your child needs. Sit down, you can write this.’ And we learned how. We didn’t want to let her down. We didn’t want to let down our fellow parents, and we didn’t want to let down our kids.”
In the early 1970s, Mrs. Ziegler became a familiar presence on Beacon Hill. She organized parents to support state Representative Michael Daly and House Speaker David Bartley’s landmark legislation known as Chapter 766, which gives all children, regardless of disability, the right to a public education and requires schools to provide resources.
Prior to the law, a patchwork of state laws governed different disabilities, leaving parents of children with special needs sparring with one another for political power and a piece of the budget, advocates said.
“It was because of Martha’s work herding all the cats into a coalition that Gardner Auditorium was packed when it came time for the testimony,” recalled Robert K. Crabtree, a Boston attorney who was an assistant to Daly then.
“In those days a lot of folks led with stridence and kind of a demanding affect, but Martha, she led with humor and love, and an assumption that her listener was with her from the get-go, which they could only agree to,” Crabtree said.
With her high-wattage personality and love of socializing, Mrs. Ziegler easily won over opponents, Crabtree recalled. To those who contended that special education would siphon funds away from teaching other children, she said she was a mother of a child with major challenges and another child without those hurdles. “How can I advocate for one and not the other?” she said.
Mrs. Ziegler wrote that she turned her shock over her daughter’s diagnosis into a celebration of Mary Ann’s unique way of experiencing life. She marveled at the pleasure Mary Ann took from textures as a child, even when she tried to pet strangers’ coats at the grocery store. She likened her daughter’s habit of incessantly repeating words to the poet Edgar Allan Poe’s use of “nevermore” in “The Raven.”
“Instead of trying to get Mary Ann to eliminate this ‘inappropriate’ behavior, perhaps we should help her understand it as an essential poetic part of her being,” Mrs. Ziegler wrote.
“As I look back at my years of immersion in 17th-century English poetry, I am struck by the irony of living with a lovely daughter whose very life is one continuous poem, filed with music, color, and metaphor,” she added.
Mary Ann graduated from high school, entered the workforce, and eventually moved into a group home. She takes voice lessons, sings in a church choir, and sang “Amazing Grace” at her mother’s bedside during the last days of her life, according to her family.
After Massachusetts passed the special education law, Mrs. Ziegler joined other parents lobbying Washington for national special education laws, which were passed in 1975. She later traveled across the country helping establish parent information centers.
Born in Fort Wayne, Ind., Martha Hanes was the salutatorian of her high school class, according to her family. Her parents, Simon and Lenora, worked at the local General Electric plant.
Mrs. Ziegler graduated from Franklin College in Indiana in 1952. She received a master’s from the University of Rochester, where she met her future husband, George, when they both rented rooms in the same professor’s home.
She was working on her doctorate at Indiana University when they married in the summer of 1955 and moved to Rochester, N.Y., where George, an optical engineer, went to work for Bausch and Lomb. He died of cancer in 1988.
In addition to her daughter, Mary Ann, who lives in Lexington, Mrs. Ziegler leaves her son, Fred of Arlington; and a sister, Lois Deputy of Fort Wayne, Ind.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday in the Church of Our Redeemer in Lexington.
Mrs. Ziegler was a “naturally social person who knew how to give emotional support whenever it was needed,” her son said.
She loved caring for her cats, reading murder mysteries, and following politics “as a loyal Democrat,” he added.
“She was in a class by herself,” said Connie Kaufman Rizoli, who is director of public policy for Project Bread and worked for the Massachusetts House Education Committee during creation and implementation of Chapter 766.
“She was as respected inside the building as she was with the parent population, just the real deal,” Rizoli said. “I think that was part of her power. You knew it was coming from the heart.”
J.M. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com.