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Different path urged for disabilities committee

April 07, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

When Bill Beard, executive director MIHI, (Many Individuals Helping Individuals) describes Ellen Albert as a "pusher," he means it in a good way. The 54-year-old Hagerstown woman says she's pushing for a seat on the Washington County Disabilities Advisory Committee, because she's convinced more could be done for the disabled of this area.

It's a good thing she's not thin-skinned, because some members of the committee disagree with her arguments and her approach to bringing about change.

Albert, who's partially deaf and whose husband is brain-injured, has been observing the committee meetings for several months now and says she's frustrated, for a number of reasons.

Only 10 percent of the disabled are employed locally and one in three members of the disabled population is abused, she said. To be more in tune with their needs, the commission should have more disabled members, she said, as well as medical people and psychologists who've treated the disabled.

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She says the surveys the committee has put out are too long - as much as 10 pages, she says - and too complicated for many to complete. Albert doesn't even like the group's meeting place, a county office building at 80 W. Baltimore St., because she says the previous site at the Western Maryland Center had more parking and easier access for disabled members and observers.

Albert said that effective tools to spread the group's message - public service announcements, school presentations and health fairs - get results without costing a great deal.

But while Beard and Hagerstown Councilman Linn Hendershot, a co-founder of the committee, say they admire Albert, neither agrees completely with her views.

Beard and Hendershot said that while the deaf community may not be represented on the panel, there are others with disabilities.

"We've got to make sure all of the various disabilities are represented, one way or another," said Hendershot, who's in wheelchair himself.

Hendershot feels more emphasis should be placed on transportation of the county's disabled. He said that last year Washington County received grant money to buy a third paratransit vehicle for the County Commuter bus line, but didn't have a driver to operate it, leaving just two vehicles to deal with a client list of 500.

Kevin Cerrone, director of transportation, said that's not quite accurate. The list of clients, who pay $2 a trip to go anywhere in the bus line's service area, is closer to 350.

The third vehicle functions as a back-up to the other two, which have some age on them, Cerrone said. If three routes were put into service and one vehicle broke down, there'd be no back-up, he said.

Beard, whose group concentrates on making public facilities like playgrounds accessible to the handicapped, agreed that Albert "would certainly be an asset to the community." But he wondered how easy it would be to find the right medical professionals to serve on the committee.

"It's easy to describe the kind of people you want. It's not always easy to find the people who have the desire and time to serve," he said.

The committee has come a long way in the three years it's been in existence, Beard said, but added that "If there's something that can be made better, and there's something we can do, that's what we want to do."

But if Beard and Hendershot were conciliatory, Peggy Martin, who chairs the panel, was not.

Albert has never applied to be a member of the panel, Martin said, but has been allowed to speak during the public comment section of each meeting. Those meetings are held at 80 W. Baltimore St., according to Norman Bassett, the county's spokesperson, because it's one of the most handicapped-accessible spots the county has, with lots of parking.

A majority of the panel's members are disabled and include a hearing-impaired person, Martin said, but added that "not all of our disabilities are visible."

As for the surveys being too long, Martin said that's so because they were printed in 14-point type - this column is 9-point - so that people with limited vision could read them. Of 6,000 surveys sent out, almost 500 were returned and the results will be compiled and released this coming June.

Twenty-some agencies, including the Washington County Free Library, helped distribute the latest survey, Martin said, and many agencies helped their clients fill them out.

The committee's No. 1 goal, Martin said, is to develop a program to educate county residents about the disabled.

Can Albert help? It probably depends on whether committee members see her comments as an attack or constructive criticism. She does have some credentials, including a master's degree in early childhood intervention. And I confirmed that after she attended a gubernatorial forum, she was nominated for a seat on the board of the Maryland Disabilities Forum, an all-volunteer advocacy group for the disabled.

If for no other reason, Albert's comments are valuable because they provided an opportunity to look at what's being done to educate county citizens about what those with disabilities need to help them contribute to this community.

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