Under former President George Bush's Administration, Richard Thornburgh helped spearhead one of the most far-reaching pieces of U.S. civil rights legislation -- the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ten years later, the former Attorney General and others are calling on cities like Cleveland to not only offer financial support to disabled persons, but stamp out the negative stigmas that have been attached to them as well. 90.3's Tarice Sims has this report.
Tarice Sims- In 1960, a young attorney from Pittsburgh got some news that would change his life forever. Richard Thornburgh's first wife had been killed in a car accident and although his 4-month-old son Peter survived, he would be mentally retarded. Shortly after burying his first wife Thornburgh says he had to deal with the threat of losing custody of his son.
Richard Thornburgh- At that time, most people with disabilities were institutionalized, in large out of site out of mind facilities.
TS- As a result of his personal tragedy, Thornburgh began advocating for those with developmental, physical and sensory disabilities -- a population that has grown to nearly 54 million in the United States. As a former governor of Pennsylvania and having served under the administrations of Presidents Reagan and Bush he says he realizes that his name carries weight. But Thornburgh says influence is a necessity in advocating for a group of people who've been stigmatized for so long. At a recent event in Cleveland he spoke about why he's an advocate.
RT- It reminds people that there are people with disabilities who are worthy of their attention and deserving of their care and assistance.
Steven McPeake- Part of what drives me is the fact that I'm a parent, several folks on our board are parents and we think that personal connection really keeps us honest.
TS- Steven McPeake is the President of North Coast Community Homes, an organization which establishes housing for disabled people who want to live independently. He is also the father of a disabled daughter whom he says he represents as an advocate.
SM- As the director of this organization I do this all the time. I will tell you when we first started to do zoning meetings for many of out properties, it was tough. After we did 50 of them though I could figure out how to handle it.
TS- McPeake says that, it's hard to listen to people negatively judge others who are just like his own child. But when it makes a difference, it's worth it. In last month's election, a tax levy to help disabled persons passed easily. Dr. Michael Donzella also works as an advocate. He's the Superintendent of the Cuyahoga County Board of Mental Retardation or CCBMR. He says financial support is wonderful but peoples attitudes have to change.
Michael Donzella- I think people's opinions and things that they say sometimes are not supported by their actions. More often than not people will support services and supports for people with disabilities. They may grouse about it but I think that they in their heart of hearts believe this is the right thing to do.
TS- According to the CCBMR, in 1998 Ohio raised over $540 million through it's local county boards. Since then financial support has grown, in Cuyahoga County for example an additional $30 million has been raised in the past two years. Despite such an outpouring of local support, Donzella warns people not to get into a "comfort zone", again stressing it's not just about the money.
MD- Why for example one can ask should a person with a developmental disability have to work in a sheltered setting. I mean there's nothing special about the nature of the work. The nature of the work is the same whether it's in a private setting or a public setting. The difference is that not all of the persons that work in private industry are skilled or even interested in taking the time and the trouble to learn how to communicate effectively with a person with a disability. Well I can't take time too, while you stutter around I need an answer right now kind of thing, and that becomes problematic.
TS- The stereotypes and fears within communities often block disabled people's attempts to work and live independently. North Coast Community Homes has been a catalyst for creating neighborhood housing for disabled persons. Steven McPeake says despite numerous lawsuits and "not in my backyard" attitudes, NCCH has opened 147 homes in Northeast Ohio, since 1985. This week, the organization celebrated its 15th anniversary. Though encouraged by it's progress, NCCH reaffirmed it's commitment to helping those still on a waiting list for homes or having trouble finding a job. In Cleveland, Tarice Sims, 90.3 FM.