MY HEART was broken on a Monday morning last winter. I arrived for work at the Social Security complex in Woodlawn, and as I descended the hydraulic lift of the MTA mobility bus, there they were directly between me and the entrance to my building.
They were the disabled people's militant activist group, ADAPT, about whose coming all employees at the complex had been warned several weeks back, since they had been given a three-day permit to protest at this site. We were told that they were coming to demonstrate against legislation dealing with reallocating funds to go to nursing home care instead of home health care. The bill dealt with some policies of the Health Care Financing Administration which is a sister agency of SSA, and is located within the same Woodlawn complex, but is not located anywhere near my building.
Even though I had known they were coming, I had not given the matter much thought. So I had to think very quickly, while my bus driver rolled me up the building's ramp, about what to do, how to behave, what to say around these people who were obviously going to prohibit me from entering.
I had never imagined that their presence would involve or effect me very much. But these were at least 20 loud and boisterous people in wheelchairs, plus about 40 walking men and women, and those who were not marching back and forth in front of the doors of the building had chained themselves to them. There was just no way I was going to get in to go to work.
To add to the weight of the moment, my first-, second- and even third-level bosses were standing right inside the window before me, and so were many members of our office. And they were all watching my every move.
I knew that I was expected to act as if I definitely wanted to get into the building to start my duty, and I was expected to treat all of these intruding handicapped and handicap-supporting people with disdain for blocking my passage.
So that was the attitude I decided to take. I put myself in a stage of playacting. I raised my voice and frowned and yelled out as best I could that I was very mad at this demonstration and I demanded to be let in the building. But in actuality, I was glad to be put in such a poignant situation. I was being photographed and reported on by a reporter from WGN in Chicago who moderated the altercation between me and the biggest, meanest wheelchair-bound men who were chained right in front of the door. It was getting to be quite a show, and I was doing all I could to uphold the drama of it.
After the camera and lights had gone off and away, I was also glad to give up the offensive and try to be friendly with some of these people who were by this time all around me. They were all giving their point of view, both directly to me and to the passing crowd in front of the ramp. They were there protesting a new decision to spend more Medicare money for housing invalids and handicapped shut-ins in nursing homes rather than allocating the money to pay attendants to care for patients in their own homes.
There was a total disregard for the facts. This was a decision completely made by Congress and, the last time I checked, Congress was still working on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. And although the national headquarters which deals with Medicare is located at our Woodlawn complex, the administrator also works in Washington.
But my complex was the only site at which they were permitted to picket this issue and, like it or not, I was bound to sit there, in the cold without any jacket, and listen to their side of the story. I grew more and more sympathetic.
Every person who talked to me was kind and articulate. They asked me to consider the problems and plights of my brothers and sisters, trapped inside nursing homes, who will never experience all of the splendid opportunities which I have had in my life. All they were seeking was attention to the injustice of a system which would spend more money suppressing the potential and promise of over 2 million of its handicapped population than in seeing to it that these men and women are afforded life, liberty and pursuits of happiness.
My heart was truly broken that, because of the status I have attained in life, I had dared to playact against such worthy and humane ideals. I have been writing for a very long time about things so parallel to ADAPT's causes. What could have brought me to this position where I would ever strike against folk who might have been singing my very own songs?
Neal, my co-worker, was able to sneak out a back door of the building and around the side, and he rescued me by rolling me around and back in the building. I had already caught a cold, but I was regretting my broken heart so much more. I turned to a lovely young girl, an ADAPT supporter, and I said to her, "I wish I could help you."
I knew what they were doing outside, but I didn't know what I was doing letting Neal push me inside.
Paul Peroutka writes from Towson.