COLUMBIA — Tony Coelho believes anyone can improve the lives of people with disabilities by advocating key legislation.
"If you just impact one life, that's the difference — that's important," said Coelho, a former Democratic congressman from California who championed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Coelho's talk in Columbia on Wednesday kicked off the Christy Welliver Speaker Series. Named for the late disability rights activist from Columbia, the series is intended to be a "rallying point for the disability community," Sean Spence said in introducing Coelho. Spence started the CoMo Disabilities Advocacy Network, which is organizing the series.
About 120 people came to the lunchtime speech at Boone Electric Cooperative. Coelho drew from his personal journey and political experience in urging greater engagement around disability issues.
Coelho said he is working to increase enforcement of a requirement that federal contractors and subcontractors hire people with disabilities. Part of that effort is to define who has a disability.
On another front, Coelho urged audience members to ask U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to support the ratification of a U.N. treaty affecting people with disabilities.
According to UN.org, the treaty "clarifies and qualifies how all categories of rights apply to persons with disabilities and identifies areas where adaptations have to be made for persons with disabilities to effectively exercise their rights and areas where their rights have been violated, and where protection of rights must be reinforced."
Coelho said that the ADA made significant improvements in how people with disabilities are treated in the workplace but the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is still significantly higher than the general unemployment rate: 14.2 percent versus 7.6 percent, according to a June 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
Coelho's passion for advocacy comes hard-earned, and he shared his story with the Columbia audience.
The first time he passed out from what was later diagnosed as epilepsy, he was 16 and milking cows in a barn. After visiting many doctors — and even a few of what he called witch doctors, who poured hot oil on his chest — he decided he was just going to live with his condition of passing out without knowing what it was.
In 1963, the death of President John F. Kennedy inspired Coelho to become a Catholic priest. During a required medical examination, Coelho was diagnosed with epilepsy, which meant he couldn't become a priest.
His parents, devout Catholics who subscribed to a belief that if you have epilepsy, you are possessed by the devil, told him, "No son of ours has epilepsy." He didn't have a relationship with his parents for 20 years after that.
The diagnosis also cost Coelho his driver's license and made it hard for him to find a job. He said he started drinking "and was drunk by two every day" and was suicidal within two months.
"Everything I loved had turned against me," Coelho recalled.
He said a pivotal moment occurred in a park while he was watching children on a carousel, and he decided to turn his life around.
Eventually, Coelho went to work for then U.S. Rep. Bernie Sisk, D-Calif., for 14 years, then won Sisk's seat after he retired. In time, Coelho became lead sponsor of the ADA. He served in Congress from 1978 to 1989.
Denise Falco, community development director for the Gateway Area Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, found Coehlo's talk inspiring and motivational.
"I'm going to write an email to Roy Blunt," she said.
Falco and Leigh Spence, guidance director at Battle High School, said they are definitely coming to see the next speaker in the series. No date has been set yet, but Sean Spence said it will be in the next three months.
Future speakers are Colleen Starkloff, cofounder of one of the nation’s first independent living centers; Lex Frieden, one of the primary authors of the Americans with Disabilities Act; and Mark Johnson, a founder of ADAPT, a national community that organizes disability rights activists.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.