Advocates of Disabled Call for Policy Change

Advocates for the disabled, including Edward M. Kennedy, Jr., assembled last night at the Kennedy School to promote awareness of disability issues and to advocate public policy changes in favor of civil rights for the handicapped.

Kennedy, executive director of Facing the Challenge, a non-profit organization he founded in 1985, said his group's goal was to "dismantle segregationist policies" that lead to the popular assumption that the disabled cannot have jobs, education or families.

Disabled people have lived in a "state of repression" as victims of isolation and segregation because of current attitudes, Kennedy said.

Kennedy compared the plight of contemporary disabled people to that of Blacks in the 1950's. He said that the disabled are discriminated against by being placed in separate schools and denied access to restaurants that lack ramps or elevators. Both groups suffer from "outdated policies that keep people back," Kennedy said.

Statistically, disabled people are two times more likely to be below the poverty level or to be illiterate than able-bodied people. Disabled white males earn 40 percent less than their able-bodied counterparts, Kennedy said.

Leadership and disability should not be mutually exclusive, said John Chappell, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. "Disability should not be a limiting factor in our lives," he said.

Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said the problem with current attitudes is that the disabled are perceived as having nothing to offer to society. Unlike Blacks during the Civil Rights movement, the disabled "are not considered suitable to perform labor," he said.

In fact, independent living for the disabled reduces costs to the state, said Clay McDowell, co-founder of the disabled advocacy group Access Alaska.

Most of the panel members did not call for more federal money for disabled programs. "The disabled themselves have to be vehicles for change," said Maurer. "Freedom cannot be controlled by others."

Advocates of the disabled aim to dismantle the system, said Kennedy, not to pour more money into it.