Militancy works for Marillynn Phillips


August 04, 1991|By Jean Marbella

As a March of Dimes poster child, she smiled for the camera the way she was supposed to, a happy little polio victim.

But at 47, Marilynn J. Phillips obviously isn't a child anymore and wants to stop being treated like one. She doesn't want to be carried over steps to enter a building. She doesn't want to be lifted up to reach drinking fountains set too high for her. And most of all, she doesn't want to be told to smile and be nice and trust the adults to take care of things.

"These posters make people see the disabled as always children," said Ms. Phillips, who last week succeeded in freezing more than $500,000 in federal funds to the Maryland State Arts Council until it makes its building accessible to the handicapped. "And they have produced a feeling among disabled that the only way to survive in this country is to smile."

Ms. Phillips is not an unsmiling person. In fact, she's funny and engaging and bright -- she graduated from high school at 16, holds several masters and doctoral degrees in English, history and folklore and teaches at Morgan State University.

Yet despite all that, the world tends to define her by her disability. Especially since she's become a vocal -- some would say confrontational -- activist for the rights of the disabled.

It's not by choice -- the hazel-eyed, wiry-haired Ms. Phillips would just as soon live what she calls "a real life." There's certainly enough for her to do without playing the Dirty Harry who enforces violations of equal access laws: She has her academic career -- in addition to teaching at Morgan, she's a folklorist who specializes in oral histories and body image -- and a husband and three cats and all those other things that make up a full life.

It's just that the world can nickel-and-dime a person in a wheelchair. If she wants to buy a new dress, will she be able to get into the fitting room? If she goes to a restaurant, can she get through the front door -- and if so, can she use the bathroom? And if she can get into the bathroom stall, can she also close the door? If she wants to go swimming, pick her husband up at the airport, attend a concert, visit the library . . . well, you get the picture.

"Inaccessibility is discrimination. I don't go out looking for these problems. I just enjoy living," said Ms. Phillips, who lives in Hampstead in Carroll County. "What happens with most disabled people is they become forced into a sort of submission. You go to one restaurant only, the one you can get in, you let people carry you."

She refuses to do that -- and so she starts writing letters whenever she's denied access to a building. In addition to the state arts council, she's filed complaints against Western Maryland College, the Carroll County Law Library and any number of other stores, restaurants and businesses.

"I have a feeling if you don't fight, you die on the inside. You shrivel up," she said. "You're submitting to a portrait of yourself that is inaccurate. I embrace my disability. I have really benefited from having a minority perspective in this culture."

Not unsurprisingly, she's made some enemies; the real surprise is that some of them are disabled themselves and think she goes about things in the wrong way.

"We try to do things more amicably," said Marion Vessels of the governor's committee on employment for people with disabilities, who herself uses a wheelchair. "We try to help people to work in a conciliatory way. I think the confrontational manner in which she might approach people does not lead people to want to work with her."

Ms. Phillips indeed works independently rather than with what she calls the more mainstream disability community. Some groups, she believe, create special programs for the disabled, which then become self-perpetuating and enclosed, rather than taking her preferred path of pushing for access to the rest of the world.

And she does push. "I think her complaint itself is eminently legitimate . . . but I was concerned she was focused on punishing people on what they hadn't done in the past," said Judith Levine, the former deputy director of the state arts council who handled Ms. Phillips complaint. "My personal view is to deal with the present and the future. She wasn't especially patient about it, but I can understand why. She is the type of person we see throughout history -- they're very focused, very committed to getting something accomplished and they don't have any concern for the consequences."

Ms. Phillips rejects the notion that her demand for accessibility is denying anyone anything, even though some of the funds her complaint has frozen are grants to artists and arts groups.

"I'm not depriving anybody of anything, the Maryland State Arts Council is," she said. "They have been given plenty of time to comply."

Though controversial, Ms. Phillips has drawn applause as well.

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