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Spirits Soar as Disabled Rights Become the Law

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was an empty wheelchair in the back row and somebody said that the occupant must have gotten up and walked on the waves of emotion as about 2,000 disabled Americans cheered the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act by President Bush on Thursday.

“I never felt so powerful as today. We’ve finally got the country listening to us,” declared an ebullient Roberta Stein, whose dog stood by her wheelchair during ceremonies on the South Lawn of the White House.

“Every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through a once-closed door to a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom,” Bush said before signing the measure that bans discrimination against the disabled. He called the document “historic,” the “world’s first declaration of equality for people with disabilities.”

The audience clapped and cheered as he called the new law a “sledgehammer” for breaking down the wall that has separated the disabled from the “freedom they could glimpse but not grasp.”

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Bush said that the new law would bring 43 million disabled Americans into the economic mainstream by giving them equal access to jobs, transportation and public facilities, including hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, stores and stadiums. In addition, it requires that all new buses, cars and trains be accessible to the disabled. And in two years, businesses with more than 25 employees will be required to reasonably accommodate disabled workers.

“This is the greatest day of my life,” said Evan Kemp, a commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and one of the leaders of the campaign for the disabilities act.

“It’s given me back the rights I lost 20 years ago when I had to use a wheelchair. I’ll be human again,” added Gene Hohl of Hampton, Va.

White House officials, fearful that the blazing heat and humidity would affect the audience, considered moving the ceremony indoors. But organizations representing the disabled talked them out of the move, which would have restricted the size of the crowd.

Justin Dart Jr., head of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, brushed off inquiries about the heat, saying: “I’d go through a lot more than that for this day.”

After the ceremony, disabled persons darted through the crowd in motorized wheelchairs to congratulate and hug each other, ignoring pleas from White House guards to clear the grounds.

Those who had made connections during the long campaign for passage sought out members of their organizations from different states. “We’re comparing notes,” said Angeline Pinckard of Montgomery, Ala., executive director of the Governor’s Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities.

“We can learn a lot from each other,” added Pinckard, who was immobilized 28 years ago by an automobile accident, which she said is now the leading cause of disability.

Near her was Clyde J. Luster of Montgomery, Ala., proprietor of C.J.'s Potato Chips. Luster, completely paralyzed in 1985 by a gunman--the second leading cause of disability, according to Pinckard--operates his wheelchair by breath controls.

Luster said that one-third of his 48 employees are disabled, adding: “I wouldn’t trade them for anybody.”

Alan Toy, an activist for disabled actors, said that he hopes one day to see the movie industry hire more disabled. “Can’t producers just hire a handicapped actor to play a character and not have the handicap be an integral part of the role?” asked Toy, who played a war protester in the Oscar-winning movie, “Born on the Fourth of July.”

Actor Michael Lee Gogin, a dwarf, agreed, and predicted that as the disabled become more part of the mainstream, “there will be an increased demand for our services.”

Also in the crowd was Joyce Gilmer of Los Angeles, founder and director of Special Needs Projects Inc. The organization was recognized last month by the White House as the 162nd “point of light.” The recognition program refers to President Bush’s “1,000 points of light” speech, in which he praised volunteers. Since 1986, Special Needs has been conducting camps to provide outdoor recreation for the handicapped.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who was disabled in World War II, was among about 40 legislative sponsors who attended the ceremony.

Contemplating the scene with unalloyed joy was John Bateman-Ferry of Syracuse, N.Y., whose back was broken by an automobile accident in 1978 just before he was about to begin a career as a professional firefighter. Now director of the Syracuse center of the National Council on Independent Living, an organization which sent hundreds of members to the signing ceremony, he recalled dozens of lobbying trips to Washington.

Gesturing toward two children in wheelchairs, he said:

“It’s worth it for those kids. Those kids are going to be corporation presidents, university professors, public officials, whatever they darned well want to be.”


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