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Thursday, August 8, 2013

New wave of advocates needed to retain rights won

We stand on the shoulders of giants in the field of civil rights for people with disabilities.

But we need parents of the children born recently with disabilities to again organize and push for greater access to jobs, economic independence, and political power. New and younger advocates also are needed to retain the rights won by those who started in the 1940s to lobby for laws that allowed their children with disabilities to get a public education, the right to drive vehicles with hand-controls, to participate in sports, receive accommodations and pass the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I knew some of these pioneers who taught and motivated me to be fearless in speaking about injustice. In a speech I once said if you had a disability you must be your own advocate. However, if needed you must advocate for those who cannot be their own voice.

I had the privilege of knowing the late Justin Dart Jr., the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I used to send him stories I wrote about being disabled in America. He would fix the terminology, edit them, and send them back. Basically, he eliminated any words that reflected negatively on a person with a disability.

One of my all-time favorite advocates was the late Tony Filippis, the co-founder of Wright and Filippis which grew from a small storefront on Woodward Avenue in Detroit to one of the largest durable medical equipment companies in the nation, now headquartered in Rochester Hills.

I recently reminisced with Tony’s secretary Mary Ann Woodward on how Tony would have her call the governor on a moment’s notice and the next thing we knew is ex-Gov. Jennifer Granholm would be on the line.

Tony, who amassed a fortune in business, gave away much of that fortune in his later years by creating the Athletes with Disabilities Hall of Fame, donating $30,000 to Steve Peck to start the Michigan Miracle League in Southfield 10 years ago and quietly building ramps and making structures accessible to those who had disabilities. He was a dreamer who made dreams come true.

A couple of weeks ago, Brent Wirth, president and CEO of Easter Seals, told me the Miracle League was to be a program of Easter Seals which will give the league financial stability.

I can never forget the late Roger McCarville of Ortonville, the host of the TV and radio program, “Disabilities Today.” That show spread powerful images of people with disabilities playing basketball, working as reporters, teachers at universities and athletes in both snow and water skiing. McCarville, who had his legs amputated after a boating accident, always showed people with disabilities in a positive light.

There also is Liz Bauer, a former member of the Michigan Board of Education and current member of the Board of Directors of the Macomb-Oakland Regional Center, who fought for the rights of her daughter and, thus, expanded the rights of all.

So to the parents who are in their 20s to 50s, I say you must unite with other parents of children with disabilities and fight for greater rights. If not those who are born different could lose the right to be educated, live in their own homes, receive 24-hour help if needed, and dream of achieving their version of the American dream.

If not, Dart, Filippis, McCarville and my late father, Vincent, and mother, Carol who is in the twilight of her life but was a dynamic voice for her son, will find a way to haunt your souls.

Jerry Wolffe is the advocate-at-large and writer in residence at the Macomb-Oakland Regional Center. He can be reached at 586 263 8950.