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Charleston matriarch and disabled rights advocate Louise Ravenel Dougherty dies at 94

Louise Ravenel Dougherty with her son Thomas Ravenel in 2007.
Mary Ann Chastain
Associated Press
Louise Ravenel Dougherty with her son Thomas Ravenel in 2007.

Louise Ravenel Dougherty was a longtime Charlestonian who fought for the rights of physically and mentally disabled people well before there was a national push to do so. She died Oct. 15 at the age of 94.

“It’s with great sadness that Disability Rights of South Carolina shares the news of the death of one of our founders and first executive director,” the advocacy group said in a press release Thursday. The non-profit provides treatment and free services for people with disabilities.

The group says Louise became committed to the cause in 1959 after the birth of her son, William, with Down Syndrome. She pushed for programs, lobbied for legislation and fought for prevention.

There wasn’t a unified movement advocating for the rights of disabled people until the 1970’s. And the Americans with Disabilities Act, meant to prevent discrimination, wasn’t passed until 1990.

“Parents of children with disabilities had to fight for acceptance in their home communities and change prejudicial attitudes exhibited towards their children," the group Disability Rights of SC said.

In 1973, Louise formed the state’s first advocacy program in Charleston. Four years later, the federal Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act required all states to provide help. That’s when Louise became the executive director of what’s now known as Disability Rights of SC. She served for 17 years and fought to keep people with disabilities out of institutions where they were further isolated from their communities.

Born in Annapolis, Md., Louise moved to Charleston as a girl. She graduated from Ashley Hall in 1946 before attending the College of Charleston where she met her future husband Arthur Ravenel Jr. The couple had six children.

In 1969, her role as an advocate for people with disabilities went national as President Richard Nixon appointed her as the first South Carolina representative to serve on the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation. President Gerald Ford did the same in 1973.

She continued to take on various national roles and in 1982 was appointed by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina to serve on the “Wille M.” review panel. The Willie M. v. Hunt case was a class action lawsuit that claimed unconstitutional treatment of violent and emotionally disturbed children who were institutionalized against their will.

Louise’s accolades were numerous. In 1994, she was awarded the Oder of Palmetto in which the SC legislature said she made it possible for many people with disabilities “to move out of the darkened corners of institution and into the light of their own communities.”

Most recently, Louise served for five years on the SC Commission for Mental Health. She retired in 2004.

Louise is survived by two brothers, Capt. James Biddle Rodgers and John Chamberlain Rodgers; her six children, Suzanne Courtney Ravenel, Arthur Ravenel, III, Reneé Ravenel Brockinton , Eva R. Ravenel, William Ravenel and Thomas J.J. Ravenel; three stepchildren, Reneé R. Dougherty, Park R. Dougherty, and Francie S. Dougherty; and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. 

Funeral services were held Thursday morning, Oct. 19, 2023, at the chapel at Bishop Gadsden. Burial followed at the French Huguenot Churchyard.

The family has requested that in lieu of flower, donations be sent to Disability Rights South Carolina.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.