"We would like to point out that we are also human," said Michael Danzig. "If anyone thinks we are to be stuffed in a closet, so to speak, we're not . . . we're not!"
Danzig, who has hydrocephalus, a disease that causes enlargement of the head and damages the brain, was one of more than 50 persons who testified recently in what Montgomery County Executive James P. Gleason termed "an extremely vital and important session." The meeting focused on the needs and concerns of the handicapped in the county.
Jane Gridley, chairman of the County Task Force on the Needs of the Handicapped, presided over the hearing, acknowledging that "the best judges of the needs are the handicapped individuals themselves."
Issues raised at the hearing focused on eight major areas of concern to the estimated 43,000 handicapped persons living in the county - employment, housing, day care, transportation, recreation and physical barriers.
Linda Thomas, who is dependent upon crutches because of cerebral palsy, said she now has a part-time job that her father got for her. She recalled, however, many jobs that she was qualified for, but did not get because of her handicap. She remembered one job, in particular, which she failed to get because she could not navigate 15 steps up to the job site.
Television commercials ask people to hire the handicapped, Thomas said, "but no one's doing the hiring." She is working now, "but what about these other people?" she asked, "especially people in wheelchairs" trying to find jobs when there are no ramps or rails into many places of employment.
Thomas, 28, said she was in an institution for 15 years, from age 5. "It was a struggle for me," she said, "but I came a long way." In the institution she said she was "labelled and numbered. They told you, 'You can't survive, cope, feed youself, catch a bus or anything' . . . but I fooled them. We want to work, we want jobs . . . . Why doesn't somebody really do something?" she asked, pounding the table with her fist.
The response from the audience was loud, prolonged applause as she left the microphone and slowly made her way back to her seat.
Thomas, later asked by a reporter what her disability was, replied: "I have trouble with stairs. That is my only handicap."
Cory Moore, the mother of retarded daughter, who represented the Montgomery County Association for Retarded Citizens, focused on the inadequacy of residential facilities for the handicapped in the county. "There comes a time when children should leave the nest," she said. "Adults with serious developmental disabilities need places to live." The residential services currently available are "extremely limited," she said.
Also inadequate are specialized vocational training, day programs, mental health care, foster care and sheltered employment, Moore said.
"If the county government had any obligation, it is to serve those residents who can't serve themselves," said Moore. "I ask, as did my daughter (who testified immediately before her), can you help?"
Rockville Councilwoman Phyllis Fordham, who represented the city as well as Centers for the Handicapped, said that "the major problem for the handicapped is still social barriers. People have preconceived notions . . . prejudices," which must be overcome before the lot of the handicapped improves.
Among the areas she cited as most in need of improvement are public transportation, employment, social services and social activities and the "need for expanded day-care facilities." Day care can be "the difference between a meaningless and rich life" for the handicapped, she said. It "lets families have a break" from the constant, day-to-day demands of caring for a handicapped member.
As for employment, said Fordham, "understanding and patience (on the part of employers) is crucial in the beginning stages" of a handicapped person's job. Fordham also said that many handicapped persons cannot get to jobs because transportation is not available.
Danzig, who testified as an individual at the hearing, said that not only are more jobs needed for handicapped workers, but also higher pay is needed. He also asked that more group homes and independent apartments be set up.