Deaf Activist Speaks Up For Hearing-impaired Citizens

January 06, 1991|By Sherri Kimmel Diegel | Sherri Kimmel Diegel,Special to The Carroll County Sun

WASHINGTON — The airy suite at the Holiday Inn offered a relaxing setting, but one person in the room was nervous.

It wasn't Robert Hahn, a Western Maryland College student sitting quietly and waiting to translate an interviewer's words into sign language.

Nor was it the interviewee, Frank Bowe, WMC Class of 1969, who is deaf and uses translators daily.

The nervous one was the interviewer, who had quizzed hundreds of people, but never to the accompaniment of a translator shaping words with his fingers.

But once Bowe, 43, began speaking in his clear voice, the trepidation faded. His warmth, relaxed posture and voice put his interviewer at ease.

Remaining cool in stressful situations is a Bowe trademark.

"Basically, I'm a Type B -- when I sit, I slouch. When I work, I slouch," he says, drooping against the back of a couch. "I'm a very low-key person. But in the last 20 years I've lived a Type A life. The pressure never stops, the phones never stop, the appointments never stop."

Bowe works on Capitol Hill as a leader in the fight for the civil rights of people with disabilities. He is founder and chief executive officer of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities.

How can Bowe thrive in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Washington? Inner peace, he says.

But that peace was a long time coming. Deaf since age3, when a bout of measles caused a fever that burned out his auditory nerve cells, Bowe had many difficult years coping in a world made for people who hear. He grew up in tiny Lewisburg, Pa., struggling andfinally exceling in mainstream public schools.

At WMC, he was on the surface a happy, popular guy -- vice president of Pi Alpha Alphafraternity, captain of the tennis team, carrying a triple major in English, philosophy and religion.

But he seemed to make it look easier than it really was.

"I had grown up with an unfair battle I was fighting every day," he said. "Talk with anyone who is black, poor,a woman, disabled -- at first they take it (being treated deferentially) personally. But gradually you understand it's not you.

"Whileat Western Maryland, I began to identify the question as one of civil rights," he said. "The problem was not me but society."

That's something he began to understand while participating in Student Opportunities Service, a now-defunct WMC program that was not unlike the Peace Corps.

One summer, Bowe and other students helped poor, isolated residents of Mohawk, Va. Ironically, that setting was a place where Bowe felt some acceptance.

"I responded very powerfully (to the SOS work)," he said. Bowe helped create a library and other communityprograms for the Appalachian residents.

Still, it wasn't until the mid-1970s that Bowe began to see what life had in store for a person with a disability.

"My father had said the world was always going to be terrible for me and that I'd better get used to it," he said."But why should the fact that I had measles when I was 3 years old mean I would have to live with it (unfair treatment) for the rest of my life? I decided that what I had to do was change my country."

Many people make such bold pronouncements, but few can claim results. Bowe can, beginning with the 1977 signing of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, known as the "Bill of Rights for Handicapped Persons."

As founding chief executive officer of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, Bowe led the movement for Section 504. He helped stage the largest sit-in by disabled people in the nation's history to pressure legislators to sign it.

Bowe spearheadedthe three-week demonstration at buildings of the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare -- now split into Education, and Health and Human Services -- all around the country. He then helped implement 504's provisions.

But Bowe didn't stop there. He also worked on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in July. TheADA expands the provisions of Section 504 -- aimed at government employers and large corporations -- to apply to smaller employers.

"Government and big business have shrunk," Bowe said. "There have been 18 million new jobs created since 1983, and most are with companies with fewer than 500 employees."

With the ADA now official, Bowe's busy digging into two other projects. One is Social Security reform inthe disability area. The other is the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990, a bill he helped push in Congress.

"I want the information age to be as accessible as buildings now are," Bowe said. "This bill will put a microchip in all new TV sets to make them capable of having captions" so deaf people, as well as foreign-born, young and illiterate people learning to read can benefit. The bill passed in October and takes effect in July 1993.

"That will mean that no matterwhere I go, and I travel as much as 150,000 miles a year, I can pusha button, and bingo, I've got captions."

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