Fingering the hearing aid in his right ear, Secretary of Health and Human Services Richard S. Schweiker spoke about his handicap. "Many of my former colleagues in the Senate used to comment on my hearing aid and say they had trouble hearing, too," he said "but they would never admit having a handicap.
"You are all wonderful because you do admit your handicaps," Schweiker said last night as a translator signed his words for the deaf. He was speaking to a crowd of about 1,000 persons clustered around the pendulum on the first floor of the National Museum of American History.
Schweiker and his wife were en route to President Reagan's 70th birthday party, but they stopped off first at the museum to help in the official launching of America's participation in the International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP).
The United Nation's "years" follow calendar years, but officials at the U.S. Council for IYDP chose to wait until after the inauguration to begin attracting attention to its cause. They sponsored last night's reception along with the Smithsonian.
Yesterday afternoon Reagan signed a proclamation promising American support in the worldwide effort and calling the estimated 35 million Americans who are physically and mentally handicapped "one of our most underutilized national resources."
One of Schweiker's former colleagues who wasn't embarrassed to admit his handicap was Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) "I'm here because I'm one of them," said Dole. "I don't use my right arm and have some difficulty with my left hand. I don't have good feeling in my fingers -- I broke my neck some 30 years ago during the war."
He and Alan A. Reich, president of the U.S. Council for IYDP, joked that Dole almost didn't get into Reagan's ceremony because his wife, who as assistant to the president for public liaison arranged the ceremony, neglected to invite him. Reich was pushed in his wheelchair by David T. Kearns, president of Xerox Corporation and chairman of the U.S. Council's Board.
Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind., president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, spoke to the group about the importance of continued federal support in removing barriers to the handicapped. Hatcher has been blind in his left eye since he was hit by a rock when he was 9.
Actress Mercedes McCambridge, who has publicly discussed her battle with alcoholism, didn't speak, but said she was there to lend support.
After a half-hour of speeches, the crowd, many of whom were in wheelchairs, on walkers or crutches, dispersed to see "The Kids on the Block" puppets act out problems people have with disabilities and "Through the Listening Horn," a musical play that discussed communicating to the deaf through dance and mime.
Many of the handicapped said they were worried about impending cuts in federal funding for the handicapped. "The cost of being handicapped is so great," said Jerry Goldberg, who works at the General Accounting Office and has been confined to a wheelchair for 10 years. "I have a specially-powered van that's very sophisticated, but it cost almost as much as my house, and we don't know if Reagan will cut programs or continue exemptions."