Dems Honor Wieder and Lopez

Citywide political club recognizes contributions to disabled community

The 504 Democratic Club, a citywide political club comprised mainly of disabled persons, celebrated its 20th anniversary on October 23 and honored two gay and lesbian New Yorkers for their community service accomplishments

City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, a lesbian, chairs the Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Disability Services and is an advocate for the disabled community on such services as expanding the fleet of wheel-chair accessible medallion taxis. The club awarded her the Franklin D. Roosevelt Political Leadership Award.

Harry Wieder, a gay man from Manhattan, was awarded the Joan Kinzer Award for Service.

Section 504 in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 specifically addressed the need of physically disabled Americans, as well as sight and hearing impaired individuals, to gain access to business establishments and transportation facilities. Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 expanded on the 1973 law.

The 504 anniversary gala showcased the club’s significant political clout in a city that is not only overwhelmingly Democratic, but, according to the club’s past president, Alex Wood, whose population is heavily comprised of disabled persons. “Estimates are that twenty percent of New Yorkers have some form of disability,” said Wood.

A paraplegic who suffered a spinal cord injury in 1992, Wood said, “Until passage of the 1973 and 1990 laws, shop owners could say to a blind person, ‘We don’t want dogs in our store.’”

Wood said the club has over 300 members citywide and has increased its policy-making influence in City Hall. “People recognize that the twentieth anniversary is a milestone,” he said.

Apparently, Lopez’ political influence forms the bulwark of that support. In a fiery acceptance speech, Lopez said that “disabled people have a right to ride in a yellow cab,” and “I believe that if people want to go to a floor in a building they should have an elevator to get there.”

State Sen. Tom Duane, who is gay, introduced Wieder as “brilliant, absolutely brilliant” and spoke of Wieder’s experience as a gay activist. “From the beginning, Harry was an ACT-Upper and a cover boy on the Village Voice as a queer radical.”

Wieder was born with a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia, a disability that in some cases requires multiple surgeries over the course of a person’s lifetime. Wieder counts himself as lucky in only having undergone one operation.

His acceptance speech addressed the ongoing AIDS epidemic as well as taxi cab accessibility. At one point Wieder chastised the disability community for being too complacent in its political advocacy.

“Nevertheless, we the disabled along with other progressives must face harsh realities—we all suffer from the most curable disease of timidity, where assertiveness and stick-to-it-tivness are often demanded.”

Wieder also challenged the audience to refocus it perspective on the AIDS crisis. “Is expensive long-term manageability for persons with HIV or AIDS an acceptable place for them to be, instead of an outright cure for AIDS?”

With only two weeks to go before municipal elections, the evening demonstrated the strides that the club has made in garnering the support of local heavyweights in the Democratic Party.

The minority leader of the state senate, David Paterson of Manhattan, who is sight-impaired, said that agencies dispute the technical definition of disabilities “to show much higher employment rates in our neighborhoods than we really have.”

Indicative of the club’s LGBT-inclusive membership, a host of queer Democrats attended the gala, including Jimmy Van Bremer, a founder of the Guillermo Vasquez Democratic Club in Queens; Alan Fleishman, a Brooklyn district leader; Matt Foreman, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; City Councilmember Christine Quinn and Assemblymember Deborah Glick both of Manhattan. Lopez also introduced a slate of judicial candidates up for election on November 4, including a lesbian, Marci S. Friedman a civil court judge running for the supreme court in Manhattan.

Representatives for various presidential candidates battling for the Democratic nomination also spoke. Rebecca Lieberman, the daughter of Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, told the crowd that “disability rights are civil rights.”

Assemblymember Jonathan Bing , a Manhattan freshman, credited the 504 Club with helping him win his primary contest in 2001. Along with Duane, Bing has endorsed former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont for president. The Dean campaign has said the disabled community will make up at least 20 percent of the Dean delegation at the Democratic convention in 2004.

Mark Green, the former city public advocate and failed mayoral candidate in 2001, who is a New York co-chair of the campaign of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts introduced another award recipient, Anastasia Somoza, a 19-year-old Georgetown University student who suffers from cerebral palsy. In a videotaped acceptance speech, Somoza thanked the club for conferring her with its Sandra Schnur emerging Political Leadership Award. In 1993, during a conference on disabled youth at the White House, Somoza appealed to former Pres. Bill Clinton that she would like her twin sister, Alba, to be included in mainstream education classes. Shortly thereafter, Alba was enrolled in regular classes as a result of the unceasing efforts of the Somoza parents to obtain access to mainstream services for the girls.

“It has been a fight for us, especially for Alba,” said Gerardo Somoza, the girls’ father, in a follow up interview. An immigrant from Nicaragua, Mr. Somoza’s political education and club affiliation derives mostly from the struggles he has faced as the parent of disabled students in the public school system. “The club welcomes people who are gay,” he said, acknowledging the practicality of such an approach. “The political process is not just for you, but for the people who come after you.”

As for which presidential candidate the club will endorse, club officials were circumspect. Some voiced concern that it was too early in the process to nominate a candidate. Others, like Wood, are concerned that the rights of the disabled come before partisan politics. “We’d like to see increased visibility of disabled delegates at the Democratic convention,” said Wood.

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