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Turning the disabled into a political force

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One of every five people has a physical or mental disability of some kind, Mark Ezzell says, and yet they've never been a political force in North Carolina because they've never been organized with "disabilities" as a common thread.

That's about to change, he thinks. Ezzell is chair of North Carolina's Council on Developmental Disabilities, a federally funded state agency which is sponsoring the first-ever conference of the N.C. Disability Action Network this Saturday, April 3, at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Durham.

"NC DAN is the culmination of a dream of mine," says Ezzell, a state official and Democratic party activist who, despite needing crutches or a wheelchair because of congenital spina bifida, climbed Mount Everest last year with a cohort of fellow disabilities folks from Texas. "We have 300 people signed up to come from all over the state, and we expect a lot more. We think this has the capacity to change politics in this state."

The goal is to spin off the group as an independent nonprofit that teaches disabilities advocates how to be political players in their respective communities while backing them up with the clout of a statewide group.

Meanwhile, slow but steady progress is being made toward converting the Governor's Advocacy Council on Persons With Disabilities from a tame state agency into a potentially aggressive nonprofit corporation called the Disability Rights Center of North Carolina.

The vision, according to Vicki Smith, a consultant working for the governor's advisory council, is an organization that will fight for the rights of individual clients and "groups of such individuals." That would be a big departure for a state agency that, as we've written in the past, has confined itself to single cases and never challenged the policies--or lack of funding--of state government in general.

Most other states have made the conversion, which means giving control of federal funds to an independent board of directors. Gov. Mike Easley will soon be asked to sanction a "redesignation process" that's been under way since July. It's not clear that he will, according to Ezzell, though the only opposition apparent to date is from employees of the governor's advocacy council who would prefer to remain on the state payroll. But advocacy council Executive Director Alison Bowen favors redesignation and is pushing for it; Bowen is among the speakers scheduled for the NC DAN conference.

Applicants are being sought for the proposed Disability Rights Center board; contact Vicki Smith at dat2a@aol.com, 304-292-5947. For information about NC DAN, go to ncdan.com, or call 1-800-357-6916, x.234. EndBlock

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