The Republican Newspaper

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By Diane Lederman

AMHERST – About 50 people, some in wheelchairs, some on crutches or with service dogs, gathered yesterday to welcome the Road to Freedom bus to Stavros Center for Independent Living.

James Ward, president of the National Coalition for Disability Rights, has been traveling around the country in his red, white and blue bus since November with his wife and two children to teach people about the Americans with Disabilities Act and to listen to stories about how the act is failing to protect those who need it.

His stop here was one of about 60 across the country, a journey that has stretched more than 20,000 miles, he said.

Ward, who said he suffers from an invisible disability – mental illness – was also collecting signatures that he will bring to Congress urging the approval of the ADA Restoration Act that will address some of the problems with the act that was approved 17 years ago.

He said the act has improved physical access, but over the years the courts have interpreted it narrowly, and many people with disabilities had their cases dismissed.

“Judges are not supposes to write law,” he said. They’re supposed to interpret it.

The restoration act, he said will address and create the law that Congress believed it was passing.

James A. Kruidenier, executive director of Stavros, said having the bus stop “is a wonderful opportunity for people to learn about the issues.” Also, he said, “It’s a way to get people together. We’re very glad for the chance.”

Mark C. Rossi, of Agawam, is a comedian who uses a wheelchair. He said people with disabilities are invisible. He talked about an elderly woman at the Holyoke Mall who in her manual wheelchair couldn’t make her way out of the store last holiday season. Rossi, who said he’s about 450 pounds, told her to hold on to the back of his motorized chair and helped clear the way.

Addressing a crowd, Ward said, “We’re not looking for special rights. We’re not looking for special privileges.” He said people just want to be treated fairly.

He said there’s a Catch 22 because some people can’t get hired because of their disabilities, but their disability isn’t apparent enough for them to be protected by the law.

“We’re not going to give up the battle. We’re going to make the ADA the sweeping civil rights law it was intended to be,” he urged the crowd.

“Let’s get on the bus for equal opportunity,” he said. “Let’s get on the bus for freedom.”

The tour includes a multimedia display and exhibit highlighting the history of the disability rights movement and the passage of the disability act.

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