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Making a New Image for Disabled : Lecturer Spearheads Drive to Change Public's Perception

July 30, 1985|TIA GINDICK | Times Staff Writer

Mary Nemec Doremus was so intent on her subject that she could barely eat her bagel, scarcely touch her iced tea. "We're talking about a movement here. There have been four great ones in our time: civil rights, feminism, the elderly and, now, it's people with disabilities.

"And you know what it's about? It's about opportunity. People with disabilities don't want to be given favoritism. We don't want pity. We don't want to be super crips. We just want to be what we are, for better or worse. People who you like or dislike, who fail or are great at what we do."

She talked fast, eager to get her point across, determined that people should understand the impact of what she was saying. "I go through a door, and I tell the people I'm meeting, 'There are 36 million people with disabilities right behind me.' "

Mary Nemec Doremus is founder and president of the National Challenge Committee of the Disabled, a Washington-based organization whose goal is "assisting the media in changing the way America perceives individuals with disabilities." She's been in Los Angeles for the last two weeks talking her cause at public meetings and private ones, meeting people with money and those with ideas.

Motivating, Inspiring

A former television and radio interviewer/commentator, a regular for many years on the lecture circuit specializing in motivating and inspiring people to get involved in their country's future, she has a certainty about her. Her role in the disability rights movement? It's to communicate. "I have a commitment to talk, to get people excited, and to recognize opportunity when it's there."

Challenge, as the committee is called, is concerned with the disability movement as a whole. It was established, Doremus says, to serve those organizations--whether at the grass-roots or the national level--that represent the disabled community. Already, in Challenge's 1 1/2 years of existence, it's networked with 150 groups. The groups may have their specific interests and goals, but the idea of Challenge is to work for them all--a unified voice to the media, which, Challenge supporters believe, "can bridge the communication gap between the general public and disabled communities."

Doremus, 41, is one of those upbeat, high-energy people who can't seem to wind down. Except, and she laughs at how odd this must look even as it's happening to her, Doremus has a mysterious nervous disorder that so robs her of energy that she can scarcely walk 15 feet without collapsing exhausted at the nearest chair. Consequently, though she is mobile, she usually gets around by wheelchair. And when she's talking, especially when she's animated and passionate about her subject, she'll suddenly have to stop--unable to go on. Her silver medication case always at hand, she'll pop a pill, Mestinon ("It's an orphan drug. You can hear it cry mama, mama"), and deliberately pace herself for a few minutes until the medication takes effect. Then she's off and talking again. In the course of three hours of really good conversation, she may have to take Mestinon five times.

But it's by choice, she says: Take life on her own terms, on the run, rather than as a convalescent. What she's got going for her, she says, is nothing less than a mission.

Marketing Disability

What she must do, Doremus says, is market disability. "I want to make disability chic," she declared. "I want to talk about life after disability. It can be a good life. But for that, we have to see people with disabilities as an accepted part of us."

And that's why Doremus and the National Challenge Committee of the Disabled are out to:

--Pressure business's top brass to include people with disabilities in their advertising. Not advertising about people with disabilities, but commercials and ads where people are standing in line at a bank or buying hamburgers or taste-testing colas.

--Pressure the media to be more sensitive in writing about people with disabilities. For example, they advocate the elimination of four words-- afflicted, stricken, victim and crippled --at least when used in connection to people with disabilities. She contends that being called a cripple is highly offensive to a person with a disability. A pamphlet, "Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People with Disabilities," has been published, but needs funding of $25,000 for mass distribution to media professionals and journalism students around the nation.

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