Supported by a crutch, the middle-aged woman limped to the speakers table at a Montgomery County Council hearing proposed legislation to end discrimination against the handicapped.
The woman, Elbera Berson of Silver Spring, said she has been handicapped since age 16 and painted a depressing picture of the barriers society erects for persons in her condition.
"Picture,if you will, being unable to use sidewalks because the curbs are insurmountable," she said, "being interviewed for jobs and being told you might not be hired because of your own safety. 'You might fall against file cabinets. You might not be able to walk to the ladies room," she said, mimicking the solicitous tones of those persons who refused to hire her.
Dians Elmes, a Silver Spring lawyer, testified from a wheelchair, pointing out that she was unable to approach the speakers table because it is on a raised platform that has no ramp.
When Louis Schwarz testified in sign language, an interpreter spoke for him. As he thanked the council for providing the interpreter, Schwarz also pointed out that the county information office does not have a special telephone through which deaf persons can receive typed answers to their questions.
"Our bodies make us disabled, while our society makes us handicapped," he said.
The legislation, proposed by county executive James P. Gleason, would bring local law into line with federal and state law and would be similar to legislation enacted in Prince George's County and the District of Columbia. Under it, discrimination based on physcial and mental disability qould be prohibited in employment and housing.
Currently, county residents who allege discrimination based on physical or mental disability have to go to the state Human Relations Commission or the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare and may have to wait months for their cases to be resolved, said state and local officials.
Testimony at last week's hearing was mostly in favor of the legislation with several persons suggesting that it could go further. It was also suggested that provisions be included to prohibit discrimination against the mentally disabled, who are not specifically mentioned in the bill.
Council members said that they beleived the proposed legislation is intended to cover the mentally disabled and promised to add wording to that effect.
Other speakers suggested that the legislation should be rewritten to prevent employers from refusing to hire a physically handicapped person because performance of the duties coudl endanger the employee's health or safety.
Roy Maurer, director of the Housing Opportunities Center of the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association, said, "We are concerned about fair and equal access . . . That shoudl be the main issue . . . The opportunity to fail shoudl not be denied a person because of a handicap."
Council members, however, indicated they would have to look into the issue to find out if employers could be protected from liability for injuries in such cases.
Of the 17 presentations, only two-by the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and the Potomac Chamber of Commerce - expressed concerns about whether the legislation is needed. Both cited existing state and federal legislation as evidence that t a local law may not be necessary.
"Until a showing can be made that the existing mechanism is inaedquate to handle any local problems that may arise, it seems to be an unnecesary burden for our taxpapers to assume," said Thomas Williams, who represented the Potomac chapter.
After the presentation by the county chapter, in which a speaker said some employers view the legislation as "a gaunlet," increasing the process of appeals in cases alleging discrimination of the handicapped, council member Norman Christeller lost his temper.
"I'm a veteran of school desegregation in the '50's and open housing in the '60's," Christeller snapped. 'The Chamber of Commerce testimony soudns familiar. I'm very disappointed with you."
Brock Hewlin, the speaker, replied that the chamber was not opposed to the legislation. "We are saying that before you pass it, you should resolve the problems," he said.