A Close-Up Look At People Who Matter : Speaking Out for Those With Disabilities

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Laura Remson Mitchell sees an injustice, she doesn't just get mad, she writes.

In letters to government officials, newspaper and magazine editors and in free-lance articles, Mitchell often tells stories. One is about a scene in an airport, when a security guard turned to the husband of a woman in a wheelchair to ask him if his wife could walk through the metal detector. Another is about a man who parked his BMW in a handicapped space, claiming he didn't believe in special treatment for people with disabilities. Yet another is about a woman who was offered a job, then was denied it when the man who offered it found out she had multiple sclerosis.

Mitchell tells these stories well: She lived them.

She tells them not for sympathy, but to get something done.

Mitchell, 48, a longtime San Fernando Valley resident, is the government issues coordinator for the MS California Action Network (MS-CAN), a coalition of the eight California chapters of the National MS Society.

Through her work, she analyzes state legislation and makes recommendations on appropriate responses, including political action. She travels to public policy meetings in Sacramento and Washington, meets with lawmakers and suggests ways to address issues concerning people with disabilities. She also volunteers as a peer counselor for people found to have MS.

The work comes naturally to her. "I've always had a tendency to fight for the underdog," she said.

When she was younger, Mitchell dreamed of becoming a political columnist for a newspaper. Circumstances altered her career path, but she believes she is still doing what she does best: using her words to stimulate change.

Mitchell's experience with MS helps her to understand disability issues firsthand, which according to her is the only way to make effective change. Without that knowledge, she believes, progress is shaky.

"It's like if you are going to rebuild the inner city without listening to the people who live there," she said. "It makes no sense."

Mitchell graduated from Cal State Northridge, where she majored in journalism, and worked for the Los Angeles Daily News as a reporter and copy editor for several years. She stopped working full time after the birth of her son, Brian, now 22, but started free-lance writing and volunteered part time for the League of Woman Voters.

In 1978, after years of unexplained symptoms such as blurred vision and fatigue, she was found to have MS at age 32.

A neighbor had MS, so Mitchell was already familiar with the disease. "She was functioning," Mitchell said of the neighbor. "She had no visible symptoms. So it wasn't quite as terrifying for me as for some people."

MS, a progressive and potentially crippling condition of the brain and spinal cord, affects people in unpredictable ways.

Mitchell walks with a cane and sometimes uses an electric scooter when she shops or goes out, but many of her symptoms are in remission.

Her goal is to change the way people with disabilities are treated, in the law and on the street. If people could see the potential that exists, she believes, attitudes would change.

"We want the same chances at the American Dream everyone else does," she said. "We aren't heroes or victims. We're just people."

At the top of her list is reform of the health care system to include support services for people with disabilities, but all of the issues are important to her.

"I truly believe this is what I was meant to do," she said.

Her colleagues believe it too. Pamela Hirshberg, the special projects manager for the Southern California Chapter of the MS Society, speaks highly of Mitchell's devotion to the cause.

"It's almost like she breathes and eats and lives what she does," Hirshberg said.

Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please address prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, 91311. Or fax them to (818-772-3338).

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