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Disabled: The Battle Goes On : Civil Rights: New legislation puts anti-discrimination law on their side. But most agree that it cannot change attitudes.


There was a lump in her throat as Lilibeth Navarro looked on with 2,000 other disabled people as President Bush signed the historic Americans with Disabilities Act last month.

The wide-ranging civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination against the disabled in employment, transportation, public accommodations and other areas, is "the world's first declaration of equality" for the disabled, Bush proclaimed. Others had called it an "emancipation proclamation" for 43 million disabled Americans.

For Navarro, who was stricken with polio when she was 5 months old, there was a feeling of personal accomplishment that day on the South Lawn of the White House. She was one of dozens of demonstrators--many, like her, in wheelchairs--who were arrested last March in the Rotunda of the Capitol after blocking entrances and chanting "ADA now!"

In her two years as an activist, Navarro, 34, a member of the organization American Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation (ADAPT), has been arrested 13 times in demonstrations and actions to focus attention on the plight of the disabled.

But for all the 1960s-style passion with which members of this growing new civil rights movement have pushed for the Americans with Disabilities Act, many believe that the law probably won't amount to a hill of beans in the grinding struggle for survival that is the lot of many disabled people.

The legislation places the disabled in a special protected class, they say, but it can't change attitudes.

"You can have all the ramps in the world," says Navarro, who scoots nimbly around her Hollywood apartment in a motorized wheelchair, "but if there's still an oppressive environment, you're still discriminated against."

Handicapped people who rely on government programs and public services to live independent lives say they spend their days in a debilitating battle to maintain personal hygiene, pay bills, buy groceries, meet appointments and wangle benefits from parsimonious federal and state bureaucracies.

"We spend a disproportionate amount of time fighting to prove that we should be getting what we're supposed to be getting," says ADAPT member Ed Tessier, 22, a quadriplegic since he was injured in a diving accident six years ago.

Even in California, among the most progressive states regarding protections for the disabled, benefit checks trickle in like molasses and the buses, even the ones with the wheelchair lifts, zip past like lightning, critics say. So soured on "the system" have some become that they worry that the new law may be a first step in an effort to push large numbers of the disabled off the benefits rolls.

"They give you something, but what are they going to take away?" 41-year-old paraplegic Ken Yamanaka said as he worked out on special equipment in the gym at Casa Colina, a rehabilitation hospital in Pomona.

Skeptics like Yamanaka cite a constant chiseling away of benefits in the last 10 years--a process that they say is continuing even now. While President Bush was proclaiming the legislative "sledgehammer" to break down walls that hinder the disabled, his administration was seeking to shave 5% off the Medicare budget, on which 3.3 million handicapped people rely for medical treatment and durable medical equipment.

At the same time, the state is placing new restrictions on Medicaid benefits and cutting back on programs for the disabled.

Many of the disabled are among the most civic-minded members of society, advocates say. They follow the plodding annual budget debates in Congress and the state Legislature with the intensity of baseball fans watching a pennant race.

"(The federal and state governments) always end up cutting stuff for the people with the smallest voice," says Rick Tauscher, 43, paralyzed from the neck down in a boating accident 17 years ago.

His efforts to acquire a motorized wheelchair illustrate the infuriating rigidity of the benefits system, says the bed-bound Tauscher, whose 17-year-old manual wheelchair has broken struts and supports. The chair has collapsed beneath him several times, he says, once injuring him so badly that he had to be hospitalized with hemorrhages in his legs.

"A couple of firemen friends of mine are welding it now just so I can sit out in the yard once in a while," says Tauscher, a former mechanic and welder from Whittier. "I've been waiting almost three years for a new one."

When a doctor at Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center in 1987 prescribed a motorized wheelchair, which costs about $14,000, Tauscher figured his problems were over. He sent the order to a medical supply firm in Long Beach and waited for delivery.

But the federally administered Medicare system, which pays for 80% of the cost of durable medical equipment for the disabled people the program covers, had set a maximum price tag on the chair of less than two-thirds of the actual cost.

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