Crawling up the Capitol steps to dramatize the barriers confronting them, scores of disabled persons rallied Monday to protest delays in congressional action on a Senate-passed bill to expand their access to jobs, transportation and public services.
The legislation, endorsed by President Bush, has broad bipartisan backing but has been moving at glacial speed through four House committees since it was approved overwhelmingly by the Senate last September.
"Two centuries is long enough for people with disabilities to wait before the constitutional promise of justice is kept," Justin W. Dart Jr., chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, told the rally.
"If we have to come back, perhaps we'll simply stay until they pass (the bill)," said I. King Jordan, first deaf president of Gallaudet College for the deaf, hinting at a Capitol Hill camp-in for the disabled.
Organizers of the rally said disabled persons from 30 states, including many in wheelchairs, came to demand immediate action on the bill without any weakening amendments.
At the close of the rally, when dozens left their wheelchairs to crawl to the Capitol entrance, spectators' attention focused on 8-year-old Jennifer Keelan of Denver, who propelled herself to the top of the steep stone steps using only her knees and elbows.
Nearby, sprawled on her back and inching ahead slowly, was Paulette Patterson, 33, of Chicago.
"I want my civil rights," Patterson said. "I want to be treated like a human being."
Despite grumbling from rally-goers that the Bush Administration and Democratic leaders were relaxing their efforts on behalf of the measure, key advocates predicted the House logjam will be broken in the next few weeks.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to approve its part of the legislation today, followed by similar action by the Public Works and Judiciary committees. Final House passage appears likely to occur by May.
Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said the unusual lobbying effort would provide a "final push" to the legislation, which he forecast would clear the House with no more than 100 votes against it.
The demonstration at the West Front of the Capitol had some of the fervor of a civil rights rally of the 1960s as the demonstrators chanted slogans and sang songs to underscore their message to Congress.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) made the comparison, telling the crowd: "What we did for civil rights in the 1960s we forgot to do for people with disabilities."
Another member of Congress, Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.), said there are still threats to passage of the bill from conservative lawmakers and powerful business interests who oppose the legislation's provisions on disabled access to transportation.
"All the i's have been dotted and all the t's have been crossed," Owens said. "There have been enough negotiations--delay is the real enemy."
Speaking for the Bush Administration, however, Chairman Evan J. Kemp Jr. of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission denied any lack of enthusiasm by the White House. Kemp, who uses a wheelchair, said: "This Administration is more for the bill today than it was 14 months ago. . . . We have solidarity. Solidarity made Poland free; It can make us free, too."
But James Brady, former press secretary to President Ronald Reagan, expressed impatience with Congress' rate of progress.
"I hope these politicians are awake and listening. If not, we'll be back," said Brady, who was disabled when he was shot in the head during an attempt on Reagan's life.
Meantime, Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh notified key members of the House that the Administration would seek a change in the Senate-passed bill to make clear that disabled persons who are willfully discriminated against would not be entitled to monetary damages.
The "clarifying amendment" will be introduced during the House Judiciary Committee's consideration of the bill this month, Thornburgh said, adding: "We will . . . continue to support expeditious passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act with this clarification."