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Rally urges language change for disabled

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Hundreds of disabled adults, their advocates and caretakers gathered on the steps of the Statehouse on Wednesday to urge legislators to pass bills removing the word "retarded" from state language and adding a 2-cent sales tax on sodas to raise money for services.

About 1,600 Alabamians with disabilities are on a statewide waiting list for services like independent living training and housing assistance. Supporters of the soda tax said it could end the waiting list.

Speakers at the rally supported a suit filed in 2000 by six Jefferson County residents with mental retardation asking that the services be provided to those on the waiting list. A tentative settlement between the state mental health agency and those filing suit was blocked last year by Gov. Bob Riley and Attorney General Troy King.

George Neal, president of the advocate group People First of Alabama, said it's important that he and others with disabilities don't feel as if they're being belittled in state language.

Like most at the rally, Neal wore a shirt with the letter "R" in a circle with a line drawn through it, signifying his stance against the "R-word."

Arkansas' Senate endorsed a bill earlier this month calling for future bills drafted in the Legislature to use more respectful language when referring to the disabled or those suffering mental illnesses. Alabama advocates want the same and are pushing a "respectful language bill" in the House. They're also talking to health officials about changing the name of the Alabama Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.

"This bill would make sure that the language that is outdated, offensive and hurtful will not be a part of the language in the state government anymore," Neal told the crowd. "Arkansas did the right thing. Alabama, you do the right thing: get rid of the 'R-word.' "

Sen. Bobby Denton, D-Muscle Shoals, called on Riley and King to work with advocates and help end the suit.

"It seems like in Alabama if you want to get anything done, you have to sue somebody," he told the large crowd, which periodically broke into chants of "We can't wait! We can't wait! We can't wait!"

Chris Bence, a spokesman for King, said the attorney general "remains on record as willing to work with the Legislature, governor and anyone else in order to resolve the funding shortage."

"A federal consent degree will not happen without the governor recommending it and the governor signing off on it, in that order. We have not received that recommendation, nor do I expect that we will," he said.

A spokesman for Riley said he could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

ARC, an organizer of the rally, has offices located throughout the state and provides services and advocacy for disabled adults.

The Arc of the Shoals president Murray Townsend said every $300,000 the state spends on its defense in the suit could be providing $1 million in services with Medicaid matching funds and at least $18 million-$20 million would be needed to take care of everybody on the waiting list.

"All of our legislators want to help us, but we understand the budget's tight and it's hard to take the money away from a group that really needs it and put it somewhere else," he said.

Many at the rally held large colorful signs with the names of their home counties, local advocacy groups and messages like "LET ME REACH MY POTENTIAL." Some members of the Walker County ARC Drama Group dressed as characters from "The Wizard of Oz," which they recently performed.

Susan Murray, a trainer for the Walker County ARC, said something as simple as the difference between a motorized wheelchair and one that is manual means the world to someone who is disabled.

"It's the difference between them being independent and needing to have someone around to push them everywhere. These are services and costs the state needs to take care of so they can have independent lives," she said. "We have to act now. People can't wait and they shouldn't have to."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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