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Quadriplegic's Firm Opens Windows of Opportunity

October 26, 1989|IRENE CHANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

POMONA — There are parties that Ed Tessier doesn't go to, plays he can't see, guest lectures he won't hear.

It's not that he doesn't want to. It's because the events aren't accessible to wheelchairs.

Some people might just accept that and move on. But not the 21-year-old Tessier. He decided to do something about it--and make some money in the bargain.

Between studying for tests and writing papers at Pomona College, Tessier makes a living dealing with the problems he and millions of other disabled people face every day.

Three days a week, Tessier leaves campus for a wood-paneled office building on the corner of Main Street and Pomona Mall West. The office is the home of Designs for Independence, a nonprofit corporation he founded 1 1/2 years ago. There, he doles out information and advice to businesses, private homeowners and schools on how to make buildings more accessible to the handicapped.

His daily experiences have made him an expert in the field. A quadriplegic since an accident five years ago, he has been turned down by restaurant maitre d's, forced to sit in the back of movie theaters and discriminated against by employers who say they don't have the proper facilities to accommodate a disabled worker.

"There's a real gap between knowing the code and how best to apply it," Tessier said, sitting behind a desk stacked with state and federal building code requirements. "I quickly learned I had a point of view the building industry wasn't familiar with. I could learn their lingo and translate my practical expertise into practical suggestions."

On a typical day at Designs for Independence, Tessier will get a call from a college official with questions about designing a wheelchair lift for a classroom building. Or a disabled resident whose landlord has renovated part of the apartment complex without providing ramps to the second and third floors. Or a family redesigning kitchen gadgets for the mother, who started using a wheelchair.

Tessier said he was dismayed this summer when owners of a Montclair Plaza movie theater replaced the old seats but failed to provide access to wheelchair users, a violation of the state building code. Tessier had been going to the theater for years and sitting in the back, "hoping people didn't trip over me or spill things all over."

After Tessier wrote several letters to the theater owners explaining the business advantages of providing access, the manager telephoned him to say the necessary changes would be made by winter, with input from Designs for Independence.

Tessier said he has learned that "the biggest thing that can sell the business community to wheelchair access is that access means good business. There are 43 million Americans with disabilities, the largest portion of whom live in California. The ones wanting to get ahead in this game are the ones that are going to get the business."

The son of a lawyer, until five years ago Tessier was an able-bodied young man who attended a private high school in La Verne. But a bodysurfing accident left Tessier paralyzed from the chest down at the age of 16.

Doctors thought there was a possibility he would regain some control of his muscles. His neck, broken during the accident, was slowly healing without requiring surgery. But two months into his recovery, as Tessier was being moved to another hospital bed, a nurse's aide accidentally dropped him, and he broke his neck a second time. Tessier said he will now remain paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Remembering what it's like to be able-bodied has made Tessier more assertive than others when it comes to the rights of the disabled.

After enrolling in Pomona College in 1986, Tessier was struck by how many places were closed to wheelchair users: bookstores, government offices, fraternity parties, dormitories. He soon became an active member of several disabled-rights groups. Now, he chairs the Committee on Disability in Claremont, which has awarded him a grant to study accessibility issues in the city.

His involvement in the community, coupled with the founding of Designs for Independence, led to his being awarded Time Magazine's College Achievement Award in April. It is given each year to 20 juniors in North America.

Last month, Tessier and his fellow recipients were flown to New York City, where he gave lectures on rights of the disabled and lobbied members of Congress on legislation that would restore Social Security benefits to some disabled people who lose disability benefits when they marry.

Sometimes, Tessier said, clients will shun his advice and go with a cheaper, less reliable plan--for example, wheelchair lifts instead of elevators--or no access plan at all. Although ignoring access codes might be grounds for a suit, Tessier said, he refrains from threatening the company because he is playing the role of professional consultant, not of activist.

"When a firm decides not to do the legal minimum there's a real conflict of interest," he said. "I feel ethically I can't use the knowledge against them at that time. But if that lack of access becomes an issue later on, if there's an accident for example, I'll be the first to offer my information."

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