"Last year an 87-year-old blind man called us and asked if we had any work he could do to help take care of his family," said Charles A. Fegan, executive director of the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. "We didn't think a man his age would last, but we decided to humor him."
But John W. Meshaw, blind and hard of hearing, didn't want humor. He wanted work. After a few days on the job, Meshaw became one of the agency's most efficient employees in its sheltered workshop, where he earns about $125 a month assembling ballpoint pens and dish scouring pads.
At ceremonies yesterday, Meshaw was one of two disabled persons who were presented "Handicapped Individual of the Year" awards by the Mayor's Committee on the Handicapped.
William Der, 23, who also received the award, earns $8,000 a year as a telephone survey clerk in the Office of Human Development at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Der, a victim of muscular dystrophy, has limited use of his limbs and is wheelchair bound.
"Like every other group in our country, the handicapped would like to have equal rights and opportunities and be able to move into the mainstream of society," said Aaron Favor, chairman of the committee, formed by D.C. Mayor Walter E. Washington last year to promote the "employability" of the handicapped.
Mayor Washington, who was the keynote speaker at the awards luncheon held at the Washington Hilton Hotel, urged Washington businesses to "rededicate yourselves to the proposition of hiring the handicapped."
Mayor Washington said that businesses have a nobligation to give the handicapped an opportunity to "earn a living so they can make a contribution in society."
"I have found that perhaps the most serious handicap we face is that of ignorance - where we fail to understand the needs of all our citizens," the mayor said.
Mayor Washington used the occasion to announce that $700,000 that was about to be cut from his budget for contracts to private vocational rehabilitation agencies has now been restored.
The mayor received a loud round of applause from the luncheon audience of about 350 persons, which included many of the handicapped, some using crutches, canes and wheelchairs.
In recent years, the nation's community of nearly two million handicapped citizens has formed a powerful lobby for expanded rights and opportunities for the handicapped. The movement of the handicapped closely resembles the civil rights struggle of blacks a decade ago.
Four years ago, Congress passed the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which in its various sections prohibits discrimination against the handicapped by federal agencies, private firms with government contracts, and educational institutions receiving federal money.
John Meshaw is pointed out as an example of what can happen when a handicapped person is given an opportunity to pay his own way.
Meshaw, who lives with his wife Mildred, 85, of Northwest Washington, worked in a workshop putting cane bottoms in chairs from 1924 to 1944, when he retired. His wife was employed at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
In the years since he and his wife retired, Meshaw said he just sat around the house in his rocking chair. In time, he said he saw living expenses and real estate taxes continually eat away at his wife's monthly pension of $302.
(Meshaw said he is ineligible for Social Security benefits because the Social Security program was not expanded to include the blind until after he retired.)
A year ago, Meshaw said he decided to do something about his family's financial plight by finding a job. "I got tired of sitting around in my rocking chair," he told a reporter after he received the award yesterday. "I decided I wanted to wear out, not rust out."
"My wife and I own our own home, but we live in poverty," said Meshaw, a thin man, who speaks softly. "Our taxes have gone up and we have doctor bills and medicine bills. We simply didn't have enough money to go around."
Der, who is Chinese and translated the speeches yesterday into Chinese for his mother, is a graduate of the Sharpe Health School for the handicapped. Der was homebound and unemployed until a year ago, when he underwent six weeks of job training at the Office of Human Development.
Der's job is to determine if the manpower employed by the agency is being used efficiently. Each day he calls and interviews 30 employees, using a specially modified touch-tone telephone and head set.
The mayor's committee also presented the "Community Service Award" to Yetta W. Galiber, executive director of the Information Center for Handicapped, the "Employer of the Year" award to Woodward & Lothrop, which has hired more than 25 handicapped persons in the past three years, and the "Technical Service Award" to the Washington Hilton Hotel, which has made numerous changes in the hotel to accommodate the handicapped. CAPTION: Picture 1, Mayor Washington congratulates William Der [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of handicapped award. Photos by Ken Feil - The Washington Post; Picture 2, John Meshaw is congratulated by the mayor at handicapped awards lunch yesterday.