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Drill Team of Disabled to Strut Stuff at Last

Times Staff Writer

Last July, at the height of Olympic fever, a team whose members did not compete for medals or world records tasted the agony of defeat when they were edited out of a videotape shown as part of the opening ceremony.

For the Totally Confident Disabled Drill Team, it was a shattering blow. The group had practiced for several years for the event, only to lose its chance to perform before the millions who watched the ceremonies worldwide.

But one year and one month later, confidence is seeping back into the aptly named drill team, most of whose members hail from the San Fernando Valley.

On Sept. 17, the 30-member team will fly to Washington to take part in Inspire ’85, a nationwide festival to highlight the talents of the disabled hosted by First Lady Nancy Reagan and sponsored by the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped.

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Inspire ’85, scheduled to take place on Capitol Mall Sept. 18 through Sept. 21, is expected to draw more than 100 groups representing the disabled and 200,000 spectators, according to Charles Eischen, a government spokesman for the festival. Planned events include a fashion show, a 10K run and an exhibit by disabled artists.

For drill team members, the invitation to participate in Inspire ’85 is sweet vindication.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Daniel Moore, who is legally blind.

Consuella Mackey, director of the drill team, said the trip will “show the world that we can succeed. This will inspire our group members and disabled people throughout the community who were hurt and crushed that we weren’t in the Olympics.”

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With sheer grit but meager donations, the group has persevered since 1981, when Mackey first got the idea for a drill team for the disabled. Several companies have promised to pay the group’s air fare to Washington, but Mackey declined to name them because, she said, she has yet to receive the money.

Mackey said a Chatsworth company, E-Z Street Clothing of California, has donated green and gold uniforms for the group to wear at the festival.

Mackey, a hair stylist who lives in Granada Hills, said she began to appreciate problems faced by the disabled when she broke her foot 11 years ago.

But it wasn’t until 1980, when she started a volunteer program for disabled students at Whitney High School in Los Angeles, that she put her ideas to work.

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She taught them the things she knew best--makeup, grooming and hair styling. In 1981, Mackey and her students put on a successful fashion show for the handicapped at Los Angeles City Hall.

Mackey recalled that the students enjoyed performing on stage and reveled in the attention and applause. The same year, she hit upon the idea of a drill team as a permanent vehicle to give the disabled an opportunity to express themselves.

“I wanted to allow them to create and perform out in the community,” Mackey said. “They said, ‘I can sing,’ so I said, ‘so sing,’ .”

With the help of Nick Breit, a physical education teacher at California State University, Northridge, she assembled about 30 disabled Southern Californians ranging in age from 14 to 61. Most came from the San Fernando Valley, although some traveled from as far as Huntington Beach.

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They met weekly on a grassy field at the college campus. There were polio victims and accident victims. Some were afflicted with cerebral palsy. Others were blind.

In the beginning, there was frustration and apprehension. People fainted from the summer heat, or got sick and couldn’t make practice. Mackey and Breit worked with people with 30 individual disabilities as they choreographed a 15-minute routine of pinwheels and figure eights, flanking maneuvers and facing movements.

“We had wheelchairs with different speeds and people were smashing into each other at first,” Breit said.

But slowly the hard work and coordination began to show. After a year, recognition followed. In 1983, the drill team was asked to perform at opening ceremonies of the Tri-Valley Special Olympics for the handicapped in Glendale, where members of the Los Angeles Olympics Organizing Committee saw them.

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Mackey, who said her dream was to see the drill team in the Olympics, decided to try to talk LAOOC officials into letting her group participate in the opening ceremony.

She submitted letters of endorsement from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and other elected officials and contacted corporate donors and foundations for the disabled. At first, the LAOOC was hesitant, Mackey said, and compromised with an offer to let the group march in the Olympic Arts Festival Parade.

Reagan Wrote Letter

They reconsidered, she said, after President Reagan sent team members a letter citing their “wonderful example of triumph of the human spirit over adversity.”

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With LAOOC support, the team filmed a performance in front of the Forum. LAOOC officials told Mackey that the footage would be part of a videotape to be broadcast during the opening ceremony.

When Mackey told her drill team the good news, they cried with joy. For the first time in their lives, they weren’t ashamed of their disabilities, she said.

The team marched proudly in the parade on July 22. But, six days later, they watched in dismay as the opening ceremony ended without footage of their videotaped performance.

“We had so much hope that the disabled would be able to make a stand,” Mackey said. “We got so close and got crushed.”

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After several newspaper articles and loud complaints to the LAOOC, officials agreed to screen the footage two weeks later during the track-and-field competition at the Coliseum. Although their hopes for a worldwide audience went unfulfilled, the videotape was broadcast for thousands in the stadium.

Next week, they will perform for an estimated 200,000 people as part of a festival that honors the accomplishments and progress of disabled people throughout America.

Morris Welch, who is wheelchair-bound, said the performance will show the world that the disabled have pride and confidence.

“We’ll be right out in the community, and some part of it will be on TV,” he said.

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“We want to show the public that the handicapped can do something with a little help. We will not stay in the disabled closet.”


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