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Disability rights: on the agenda. Activists take their demands from placards to public policy

By Catherine FosterStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 1988

Berkeley, Calif.

ED ROBERTS loves to tell the story of what happened when the doctor told his mother that her son, who had contracted polio, would be severely disabled. She expressed relief at knowing he was going to live, he recounts, and ``the doctor turned to her and said, `How would you like to live in an iron lung? He'll be nothing more than a vegetable.''' Mr. Roberts produces the punchline with a grin: ``I'm proud to be here today as an artichoke. Prickly on the outside but with a big heart.'' He laughs, takes a breath of air from the portable air pack attached to his motorized wheelchair, then a sip of tea from a glass his attendant holds up, and plunges right back into the discussion.

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``I was advised I'd never have a family or work,'' he says. Yet he attended the University of California, Berkeley, and organized several organizations dealing with the disabled. Ironically, when Roberts applied to the Department of Rehabilitation in California to train disabled people, he was turned down as being ``too disabled.''

``They didn't see how motivated I was. A person may have a lot of talent and pride, but the disability [in the eyes of others] overrides everything else.'' Fifteen years later, he was director of the same agency, and today travels all over the world as president of the World Institute on Disability, in Berkeley. And he has a 10-year-old son.

Roberts is one of the leaders of the disability rights movement, a growing band of activists with various disabilities who have joined together for greater political clout. Their goals are similar to those of the black and women's civil rights movements: to shatter stereotypes and societal barriers that bar their full participation.

``In the beginning, there were just a few hundred people who had a vision of civil rights for disabled people,'' says Mary Jane Owen, director of Disability Focus, Inc., in Washington, D.C., a non-profit consulting group. ``Now we have hundreds of thousands of people. We're on the agenda.''

According to census figures, there are 37 million people with disabilities in the United States. And this number is expected to grow as the population ages.

After years of little-noticed effort, the disability rights movement is emerging into the mainstream. People with disabilities occupy influential positions in government (16 are members of Congress). Legislation has begun to remove architectural and occupational barriers, and activists are introducing a spate of new bills to further that progress. The first generation of disabled children to be educated in mainstream classes has just graduated.

Much has changed since the spring of 1977, when more than 100 protesters who were deaf, blind, or had other disabilities, gathered at the US Health, Education, and Welfare offices in San Francisco. What started out as a simple rally escalated into a 28-day sit-in, the longest ever held in a federal building, and the beginnings of what disabled people view as the third major civil rights movement in the country.

Protesters were demanding that the Carter administration enact regulations implementing provisions of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act that barred discrimination against disabled people in programs receiving federal aid.

At the same time, activists in New York, Washington, Atlanta, and Denver held their own demonstrations. On April 28, HEW secretary Joseph Califano signed the regulations, saying, ``Section 504 ... represents the first federal civil-rights law protecting the rights of handicapped persons and reflects a national commitment to end discrimination on the basis of handicap.''

That, combined with the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which ensured disabled children of free public education regardless of the severity of their disabilities, seemed to usher in a new era of promise. It established a mandate to end discrimination and to bring disabled people into the mainstream.

But progress has been met with resistance. Disabled activists say that the later Carter years were the friendliest to their cause, but under the hands-off Reagan administration, they've had to fight the eroding of their hard-won gains.

More than a decade later, public transportation is still largely inaccessible to a majority of the mobility-impaired. Lawsuits are filed to force school districts to obey federal law in admitting disabled children. Yet many accessibility features, such as special parking spaces for the disabled and widened bathroom stalls, go unused. And according to a 1986 Harris & Associates poll, 66 percent of working-age disabled people are still unemployed. That survey called people with disabilities, ``a sleeping giant, when it is stirred, even the mighty will tremble.''