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Rocking the Boat : Musician Fights for Disabled Access to Markets--and the Music Industry

October 05, 1994|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He came to town eight years ago to be the world's first quadriplegic rock star, only to run into a music industry he says is not ready for an idol in a wheelchair.

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Not many people are ready for Dorik Perman.

He is the self-styled "Notorious Godfather of the Disabled," leader of a Hollywood-based group of militants who call themselves the Coalition of Disabled Enforcers.

His telephone answering machine unapologetically proclaims: "You have reached CODE, the Coalition of Disabled Enforcers, when not only are the disabled in your face, America, but we don't say 'pretty please' about it."

Muscular dystrophy has left Perman, 39, with very limited movement of his fingers and arms, but he has full movement of his mouth.

"The media always wants to show the disabled as frustrated," he says. "But our people are damned mad."

That anger is fueled daily, he says, whenever he encounters a building without a wheelchair-access ramp, a business without a counter low enough to accommodate wheelchairs, an able-bodied driver parking in a space for the handicapped or a market that locks wheelchair access gates next to its turnstiles.

"By locking those gates inside the store, supermarkets have locked out the disabled," Perman says. "I can't put into words how it feels to go to a supermarket to buy food, and I'm locked out. This is a hate crime."

Whenever he finds a locked gate in a market, "I start swearing and become hard-core belligerent," he says. "What if it were a 'gay entrance' and it were locked? Gays would be burning down the store. What if it said 'women's entrance' and it was locked?"

Last month, Perman took on his neighborhood Bank of America branch at Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street, charging that the bank violated building codes when it raised the overall height of teller counters.

He filed a complaint with the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, which enforces accessibility requirements under state law. City inspectors investigated and issued an order Tuesday requiring the bank to lower at least one of its teller windows to a height of 28 to 34 inches. A bank spokesman said that he had not yet seen the order but that bank officials will sit down with city inspectors to determine what adjustments need to be made.

"I am ecstatic," Perman said Tuesday. "We have gotten the city to respond to the fullest extent of the law. I see this as a major victory."

Perman's harshness has estranged him from mainstream leaders of the disabled community of Los Angeles, many of whom consider him irresponsible. Unmoved, Perman has a pet saying: "The Godfather is always right."

The city's principal building inspector, Henry Porter, who prepared the order against the bank, does not subscribe to that view. Porter said Perman physically threatened him and his supervisor, Ron Shigeta, on Monday, allegedly telling both men they had "better watch your backs."

"It is serious and not something to take lightly," Porter said Tuesday of Perman's comment. "We will refer it to the city attorney's office."

For his part, Perman said anything he said that could have been construed as a threat was in response to what he originally thought would be the city's "non-action" on his complaint against the bank. He said his remarks Monday came before he knew that the bank would be required to lower one teller window.

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Perman, still pursuing the rock 'n' roll dream that brought him here, wears his shoulder-length hair in a ponytail and often wears a red cap with its bill turned up. He gets around in an electric wheelchair and specially equipped van driven by Debra Dae, his nurse and girlfriend for 15 years. Dae, who plays guitar and bass, is also the "rock 'n' roll nurse" in his nightclub act.

Communication between the couple transcends speech and gestures. On an unseen signal, Dae, 32, moves to Perman's chair and places a tissue at his nose.

Later, she responds to an unspoken request to prop Perman's left elbow on his wheelchair, allowing him to rest his head on his hand. Moments later, she lifts Perman's head back to an upright position and returns his arm to his side.

In Perman's early years in Los Angeles, he and Dae played the Roxy, the Whisky, Gazzarri's and Club Lingerie, and picked up good reviews. The walls of their Hollywood apartment are festooned with flyers from those club dates.

Other flyers chronicle Perman's history of protest. A 1990 poster announces "The Major Label Protest Tour," demonstrations against the absence of disabled rock performers. "Picketing will continue until your (record company) rosters include at least one disabled minority act and we hear about it," the poster says.

The picketing failed.

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