By Ashlea Surles, For the Daily

Sarah Royce
(shubra ohri/Daily)
Tony Coelho, former U.S. rep. from California, lectures on disabled rights as Barb Chaffer Authier translates his words into sign language in Auditorium 4 of the Modern Languages Building yesterday. (SHUBRA OHRI/Daily)

An epileptic woman working for the Central Intelligence Agency was given an ultimatum in 1995: Either wear a bizarre mask with eye-slits and a mouth slit big enough for only a straw to fit through, or be fired.

Epileptics and other people living with mental and physical disabilities face this type of discrimination all too often, according to Tony Coelho, former U.S. representative from California and Al Gore’s top campaign advisor for part of the 2004 election. Coelho spoke about this topic and other disability issues yesterday during his keynote address for the University’s “Investing in Ability” week in Auditorium 4 of the Modern Languages Building.

Coelho was a principal author of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The legislation is regarded by many as the most important piece of civil rights legislation since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act is chiefly aimed at preventing discrimination toward disabled persons in employment by allowing those who feel they have been discriminated against to sue employers. In Coelho’s words, the act aims to “make people focus on the ability, not the disability.”

Before the ADA, a person in a wheelchair could be legally kicked out of a movie theatre as a fire hazard, and a blind person could be turned away from a restaurant for his inability to read a menu, Coelho explained. With the passage of the ADA, these and other acts of injustice are no longer permitted.

Since 1990, 29 cases have been taken to the U.S. Supreme Court under the ADA. But while Coelho admitted that “we have made progress,” he also acknowledged that before more significant changes can be made, “we have to change the public attitude” about people with disabilities. He said one factor contributing to the public perception of disabled people is the community’s low rate of political participation.

Coelho is particularly knowledgeable on issues pertaining to the disabled community because he is an epileptic and has himself struggled with the same employment discrimination that the 54 million disabled people living in America today are often forced to confront. Following a severe head injury as a boy, Coelho began to suffer from sporadic seizures but was never officially recognized as an epileptic. Despite his disability, he graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a bachelor of arts in political science.

Upon graduation, Coelho decided to enter the seminary but was rejected on the basis of Church doctrine barring epileptics – who were supposedly possessed by the devil – from entering the priesthood. As a result of his condition, Coelho was required to check a box indicating he was an epileptic on every job application he filled out, branding himself as undesirable and leaving him unemployed. He began to drink heavily and sank deep into depression.

After a personal epiphany, Coelho became motivated to turn his life around and began his quest to attain equal rights for disabled citizens.

Provisions of the ADA have become law in 50 countries and are now being considered by the United Nations as required policy for all member nations. But Coelho said this piece of civil rights legislation, like most others, faces an uphill battle that closely parallels the affirmative action movement. Coelho said the two are linked through sobering statistics, such as the 90 percent unemployment rate for disabled persons of color.

According to Coelho, an increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court has made it difficult to enforce the ADA, and many of its provisions have faced budget cuts and been put on the back burner in recent years. But Coelho continues to push, saying that the self-sufficiency “that comes from getting a job is critical for those with disabilities.”

When asked if he is an underdog, Coelho said “yes,” explaining that although he is successful, he has come from behind and overcome obstacles that the average American will never have to confront.

Coelho’s speech kicked off a weeklong University celebration of the multifaceted community of disabled people and the contributions they have made. Jack Bernard a lawyer in the University’s general council office and coordinator of the event and chairman of the University’s Council for Disability Concerns, stressed the importance of this week’s events, explaining that for those who are disabled, “it is difficult enough just to get your laundry done. It’s not easy to mobilize to inform the public.”

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