Remarks attributed to Lindsey Wilkes in a Metro story Friday about voter registration should have been attributed to Bernard Crawford. (Published 6/24/90)

Fifty-six mentally retarded men and women who grew up locked behind doors that shut out opportunities many people take for granted registered to vote for the first time in their lives Wednesday night.

Lindsey Wilkes, raised in Forest Haven, once the District's institution for the mentally retarded, was among them.

"It is a good idea to vote. I feel happy," he said.

The registration took place at a forum that was part of an effort to teach mentally retarded people to become advocates for themselves.

"Voting is one of the ways you can speak out and make your voice heard like anybody else's," Vince Gray, executive director of the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens, told nearly 100 people at the meeting in the organization's headquarters, 900 Varnum St. NE.

"I'm looking forward to the day when one of our people runs for office," Gray said, referring to the mentally retarded persons served by the organization. The audience cheered.

The forum was sponsored by the D.C. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration and the Coalition for Persons with Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. Mayoral and D.C. Council candidates are expected to attend meetings and be questioned by the new voters, Gray said.

Experts estimate that mentally retarded people make up 1 percent to 3 percent of the national population, which would mean about 18,000 people in the District.

But there are no firm figures on the number of mentally retarded people living in the city.

The District's Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration serves 1,800.

Gray said a small segment of the mentally retarded go to the polls. "In some states there have been specific laws that speak to incompetence and cognitive impairment" and have in the past prohibited this population from voting, he said.

"D.C. laws are vague . . . and even allow voter assistance in the booth. The greater issue is that {the mentally retarded} were perceived as unable to exercise the right to vote."

In the 1990s, Gray said, "You will see people who help the mentally retarded step aside and let them speak for themselves."

At Wednesday night's forum, Reese, a community specialist for the D.C. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration, asked the audience for a definition of advocacy.

"Out there in the community the people don't have a good understanding of what retardation means . . . . Maybe we can get on TV or something as a group and explain to them," said Thelma Greene.

Claire Funkhouser and Colleen Ruppert from the Kennedy Institute explained how their self-advocacy board works. Ruppert, who is mentally retarded, read from a prepared text, "Self-advocacy is speaking up for yourself and knowing your own rights and making your own decisions and choices."

Ruppert said she is a registered voter. When asked how she made a decision on whom to vote for, Ruppert said, "Listening to mom and dad. And I listened to the news -- a lot."

The audience was asked what they wanted their lives to be like in 10 years.

"I hope everybody from the group home can be out," said Wilkes, while his peers cheered and applauded.

"I need a job," said Brenda Garland.

"I want to be married and get out and get a job and go to parties," said Crystal Gordon.

The chance to talk into a microphone and give opinions to an audience brought broad smiles to the faces of many of the speakers.

After the commentary, Charlene Jones of the Association for Retarded Citizens explained voting procedures, holding up a sample ballot.

With Jones giving directions, a woman in braces steadied herself on her crutches in front of the voting machine.

Then, gingerly, she pressed the lever.