Diana Griego Erwin: How much has really changed for disabled people struggling for rights?

By Diana Griego Erwin -- Bee Columnist
Published 2:15 am PDT Tuesday, July 13, 2004

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There is something about the late Ron Whyte's Hitchcockian play, "Disability: A Comedy," now playing at River Stage, that feels dated.

The extreme isolation of the main character, a 27-year-old quadriplegic trapped in his parents' high-rise apartment. The indignities he suffers. The way his life adds up to that of less than a full person.

Certainly it's not that way today for people whose disabilities require them to depend heavily on others, right? In the play, Larry, played by the entirely persuasive David Campfield, is a prisoner in his overprotective parents' apartment. Fed up, he decides to escape by hooking up with someone through the personal ads in a sleazy sex magazine.

The audience quickly learns that Larry's lot is, indeed, strange and dismal. Everything he knows of life beyond the apartment walls comes from books, television and music. He's lonely; his anger is real. To be that beholden to others is maddening to the point of despair, certainly, and almost to the point of craziness.

Thank goodness things have changed for people with life-altering disabilities.

But then, I learned that I only wanted everything to have changed since the play was first produced in the 1970s. It isn't dated at all. It is then and now.

That message came through loud and clear in a panel discussion River Stage (at Cosumnes River College) is hosting after every Sunday matinee during the play's run, which extends through July 25.

There, audience members and pan elists spoke bluntly of how the play resonated against their own life experiences.

Betty VanGieson of Lincoln said she recognized the indignities portrayed by Campfield's character. Now 70, Van Gieson contracted an especially harsh case of polio in 1947, the summer before she entered high school and, on the whole, people were neither compassionate nor fair, she said.

McClatchy High School officials made life almost unbearable, she said. Even though she kept up on her schoolwork while hospitalized for nearly a year, the principal wouldn't allow her to take her Spanish final unless she could sit in a seat like "a regular student" when she showed up in a wheelchair.

The teacher was in tears. Once the principal left the room, a classmate recruited another student to help him lift her into a seat. The two boys had to arrange her feet under and arms on the desktop, a task she could not physically do herself. Indeed, the principal came in to make sure she was seated properly.

Writing was excruciatingly slow, but the teacher wasn't allowed to give her extra time on the test. She was denied access to movie theaters, too.

People with disabilities just weren't supposed to be out around everyone else, VanGieson said. "People feared this could happen to them and just didn't want to face it. What you don't see cannot happen. It doesn't exist."

While public perceptions have changed dramatically, in other, subtler ways they haven't. Out in public, people tend to ignore people using wheelchairs or act like they can't speak or think for themselves, the discussion revealed. Many waiters, for instance, will ask a dinner companion what someone in a wheelchair wants to eat rather than ask the person themselves. Parents often caution children away from strangers in wheelchairs, "like we're contagious."

One of the panel members, a social worker paralyzed as a teen in a 1969 diving accident, said one of her clients lives much as the play's main character does, a prisoner in his mother's house. It's not that the mother is bad, but under such protective circumstances he's not doing much living.

Many of those participating in the after-show talk view the next civil-rights fight as that of the disabled community. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last fall announced proposed cuts to services for disabled people, those constituents fought back.

Hard.

And won.