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

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Newly proposed legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988, aims to rectify the shortcomings of previous piecemeal legislation. Unlike existing laws, which apply only to recipients of federal funds, this law could be broadly enforced. If passed, it would prohibit discrimination of disabled people in employment, education, housing, transportation, and communications. Proponents say it could be as comprehensive as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The analogy is important.

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``We see [the disability rights movement] as the third wave of civil rights,'' says Alan Reich, president of the National Organization on Disability based in Washington, D.C. ``We're learning from the women's movement and the black civil rights movement as they apply to disability.

``The real exciting thing is that for the first time people with different disabilities are identifying with common goals and common concerns, as a unified minority group, the nation's largest,'' Mr. Reich says. ``The lack of education, lower participation in voting, inaccessibility in places of worship are common to all disabled people.'' Yet so far the movement has reached only some of the poor and less well-educated people with disabilities.

The real problems, activists say, are not the disabilities, but the handicapping barriers society puts up. Cost is one: An argument that disability activists say they hear often is that making society accessible for just a few people costs too much.

Mary Lou Breslin, director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Inc., (DREDF) in Berkeley scoffs at that. ``The cost issue is always used to object to disabled people participating fully. The costs are often inflated. People misunderstand about the scope; it's not every bathroom, not every floor. ``The federal law has been in place for 15 years and we've seen a lack of willingness to cooperate. The disabled community has had to think clearly about what we're willing to settle for. We're not willing to settle for violations of existing federal law.''

DREDF is one of the activist organizations sprinkled along the gently sloping streets here that make Berkeley a mecca for people with disabilities. DREDF monitors rights around the nation, keeps laws favorable to disabled people from being phased out, and provides technical legal assistance.

Their aim is to fight discrimination through legal channels, rather than trying to change stereotypes.

``Attitudes are so deeply imbedded that without the leverage of law, there's not much you can do about them,'' says Breslin.

Others say that the progress people with disabilities have made can not be chalked up solely to hard-nosed activism. ``There have also been gains because society is recognizing that people with disabilities can and should participate more,'' says Reich. ``There have been gradual improvements over time, and a growing enlightenment.''

``For people with disabilities, it's really a true revolution: from charity and paternalism to being treated like a real human being,'' says Deborah Kaplan, a public policy lawyer who works with disability issues. ``We're moving away from the expectation of disabled people being seen as objects of other people's' assistance to people having something to contribute to society.''

``I think we'll really succeed,'' says Roberts. ``We're fundamentally changing the way the country looks at disability and the way we look at ourselves.''

On Monday: living in a family. On Friday: living independently.

Language limits

As disabled people throw off limited concepts of themselves, they are becoming more sensitive to the language used to describe them. The Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas has published guidelines for media professionals to correct outdated and demeaning terms. They reflect input from more than 100 national disability organizations. Some key points follow:

Do not sensationalize a disability by saying ``afflicted with,'' ``suffers from,'' ``victim of,'' etc.

Do not label people as part of a disability group, such as ``the retarded.'' Instead, say people with mental retardation.

Put people first not their disabilities. Focus on the individual, not on a particular functional limitation, such as ``crippled,'' ``deformed,'' etc.

Emphasize abilities, not limitations - uses a wheelchair, walks with crutches.

Disability: General term for a functional limitation.

Handicap. Not a synonym for disability. Describes a condition or barrier imposed by society, the environment, or by one's own self.

Nondisabled. Appropriate term for persons without disabilities. ``Normal,'' ``healthy,'' or ``whole'' are inappropriate as a contrast.

For a copy of the guidelines, contact: Media Project, Research and Training Center on Independent Living, BCR/3111 Haworth, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045.