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Richard Wooten, Activist for Disabled, Dies : Innovators: Paraplegic drafted a series of handicapped-access measures that became law. He later established a trade fair to showcase goods and services.

August 23, 1995|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard C. Wooten, a paraplegic who greatly expanded opportunities for the physically handicapped by drafting California's landmark barrier-free public access laws and showcasing innovations in special equipment, has died. He was 58.

Wooten, of Encinitas, died Friday while undergoing cardiac tests at a hospital in San Diego County, Deputy Atty. Gen. G. R. Overton said Tuesday.

"He challenged the old ways and authority, always with good humor and rampant optimism, while maintaining a firm grip on what was right, ethical and moral," said Overton, who had worked with Wooten on various civil rights efforts for the handicapped. "He liberated our thinking about disability and how disabled persons are regarded in our society."

Wooten, who had used a wheelchair since polio paralyzed his legs at age 15, was a consultant with the California Department of Rehabilitation in the 1960s when he began studying access problems in public buildings, in vehicles and on streets.

He drafted a series of measures and then lobbied the state Legislature and Gov. Ronald Reagan until they were passed and signed into law in 1968. The series of laws served as a model for other states and for the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

The handicapped-access laws prompted lowered curbs at street intersections and ramps or elevators at entrances to all public facilities or private ones serving the public, and otherwise eliminated physical and legal barriers that restricted movement of the disabled in society.

Wooten mortgaged his family's home and, with four other disabled people, created the California Assn. of the Physically Handicapped Inc. to work for additional political and social rights.

Moving from Sacramento to Encinitas and setting himself up as a rehabilitation consultant in 1976, Wooten shifted his focus from legal rights to technical innovations that would make life easier for the handicapped.

In 1979, he and his wife, Pat, invested their life savings to establish a trade fair to demonstrate useful goods and services. Originally named the Abilities Unlimited Expo and later renamed the Abilities Expo, the annual trade fair was begun at the Los Angeles Convention Center, later moved to the Anaheim Convention Center and eventually duplicated in San Francisco, Edison, N.J., St. Louis, Chicago and in Florida.

"The whole point of the show is to help the disabled person find the right type of equipment for his needs," Wooten told The Times at a recent show, explaining that anyone shopping for a wheelchair (which can cost up to $9,000) needs to see the wide range of those available even though most stores would have only one or two models.

"A lot of this equipment is difficult to find, and that's why I started the show," he said. "I knew there was certain equipment out there, but when I decided I wanted to buy it, I couldn't find it.

"Sometimes, the equipment can just open up a whole new world" for the disabled, he added. "You can totally turn someone's life around in just a few days."

Wooten began solving his own problems as a Kansas teen-ager when he wanted to drive on dates and could not find hand controls for the family car. He and his father bought some universal socket connectors, rods, tubing, bolts and wing nuts and built an innovative portable hand control for use on any automobile with an automatic transmission. He built and sold the controls until the late 1970s.

Wooten earned a master's degree at Wayne State University in Michigan.

In addition to his wife, Wooten is survived by a stepdaughter, Sheri.

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