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Disability rights: on the agenda. Activists take their demands from placards to public policy

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ED ROBERTS loves to tell the story of what happened when the doctor told his mother that her son, who had contracted polio, would be severely disabled. She expressed relief at knowing he was going to live, he recounts, and ``the doctor turned to her and said, `How would you like to live in an iron lung? He'll be nothing more than a vegetable.''' Mr. Roberts produces the punchline with a grin: ``I'm proud to be here today as an artichoke. Prickly on the outside but with a big heart.'' He laughs, takes a breath of air from the portable air pack attached to his motorized wheelchair, then a sip of tea from a glass his attendant holds up, and plunges right back into the discussion.

``I was advised I'd never have a family or work,'' he says. Yet he attended the University of California, Berkeley, and organized several organizations dealing with the disabled. Ironically, when Roberts applied to the Department of Rehabilitation in California to train disabled people, he was turned down as being ``too disabled.''

``They didn't see how motivated I was. A person may have a lot of talent and pride, but the disability [in the eyes of others] overrides everything else.'' Fifteen years later, he was director of the same agency, and today travels all over the world as president of the World Institute on Disability, in Berkeley. And he has a 10-year-old son.

Roberts is one of the leaders of the disability rights movement, a growing band of activists with various disabilities who have joined together for greater political clout. Their goals are similar to those of the black and women's civil rights movements: to shatter stereotypes and societal barriers that bar their full participation.

``In the beginning, there were just a few hundred people who had a vision of civil rights for disabled people,'' says Mary Jane Owen, director of Disability Focus, Inc., in Washington, D.C., a non-profit consulting group. ``Now we have hundreds of thousands of people. We're on the agenda.''


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