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Larry Gorski on the inside: the squeaky wheelchair gets the grease



For most of his adult life Larry Gorski was the consummate outsider. Outside because there were plenty of public buildings he couldn't enter and lots of public services (buses, for example) he couldn't use. Outside because he could do little to alter a system that, in his view, regarded him and those like him as pitiful victims. But Gorski, a shrewd, aggressive man, has never been one to brood over tragedy and injustice. He's a firm believer, he says, in the idea that "the squeaky wheelchair gets the oil." So now, at the age of 45, he has become the consummate insider, a private citizen who's risen to high places.

At the end of a long corridor on an upper floor of City Hall, Gorski presides over the Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities (MOPD), an $82,000-a-year job that gives him responsibility for a $3.5 million. budget, 34 employees, and a wide range of services. He relishes the position. "I'm knocking down doors from the inside," he says. "I couldn't possibly accomplish 10 percent of what I do if I were still on the outside."

Gorski is a handsome man, with the authoritative manner of an executive who's accustomed to making decisions and having them carried out. He guides his wheelchair around the office so efficiently that it's easy to forget, that his mobility is limited--he hasn't walked in 24 years.

While the move to City Hall has given him considerable prestige and access to numerous powerful groups, it hasn't endeared him to every segment of the disabled community. Some find his hard-charging, hands-on-everything approach overwhelming; others contend that he isn't sufficiently attentive to those still on the outside. Gorski isn't popular with critics of the disability-rights movement, who see the new access regulations as unnecessary governmental intrusion destined to attract hungry lawyers and bankrupt businesses.

Be that as it may, MOPD under Gorski's leadership has become a relatively high profile entity, strongly interacting with other city agencies, including the departments of personnel, aging, purchasing, buildings, and human services. The major goal of MOPD is getting the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) implemented in Chicago within the time limits established. Passed by Congress in 1990, the act is being phased in over a six-year period. As of January 1992, public places--including restaurants, hotels, retail stores, and libraries--were supposed to be accessible to the disabled; entrance ramps had to be provided, barriers to wheelchairs removed, bathroom facilities upgraded, and elevators installed in new buildings with three or more floors.

Beginning last July employers with 25 or more workers were barred from discriminating "against qualified individuals with disabilities"; in two more years the prohibition will apply to employers of 15 or more. Since August 1990 all new buses and rail vehicles ordered by transit authorities must be accessible, as must all "key stations" on commuter lines. In addition, telephone companies must offer special services such as the "text" telephone (which allows hearing- or speech-impaired people to communicate via typed messages over telephone lines). Gorski's office also oversees compliance with other federal laws that affect the disabled, such as the Fair Housing Amendment Act, and state laws, such as the Illinois White Cane Act.

If all this sounds rife with potential for disagreement and misinterpretation, it is. But Gorski refuses to apologize for the rumpus. "What the civil rights bills aimed to do for racial minorities, the new legislation, especially the ADA, does for the disabled," he says. He has the relevant statistics on the tip of his tongue: there are 43 million disabled Americans, who make up the nation's largest minority; 1.7 million of them are in Illinois, about 1 million in the Chicago area. By the year 2011 half the U.S. population will have one or more disabilities. When he talks about disabilities, he explains, he includes speech, hearing, and mental and developmental problems as well as the most obvious one: restricted mobility.

Some fruits of the MOPD effort are visible already: 3,000 curb ramps in the downtown area alone, hundreds of new entrance ramps in public buildings, some 150 new parking spaces for the disabled in the Loop. Less visible are the legal services, home-delivered meals, emergency transportation, and social-service case management; some of these are handled directly by MOPD, others by private agencies contracted with MOPD. Least visible is the disability access planned for city and private building projects. Gorski is constantly conferring with architects and contractors planning big jobs like the new Emergency Communications Center, the new Chicago Stadium, the McCormick Center expansion, and the Central Area Circulator project--all of which will be in operation within the next six years.

Peter Gidwitz, cochairman of the Equal Access Council, a city advisory group, says he's impressed with Gorski's leadership and his "understanding of disabilities." Kathleen Moran, chairman of the disability-issues committee of the Chicago Area Transportation Study, says Gorski has been "extremely helpful in getting things done." She cites a recent plan by the CTA to cut back on special services for the disabled; she contacted Gorski, who threw his weight around and got the plan scrapped. Marca Bristo, president of Access Living, the largest nonprofit agency promoting independent living in Chicago, says her organization is "united around the goals" Gorski represents, "though we don't agree with him on every issue."

Some, however, are openly critical of Gorski, claiming that he doesn't adequately respond to their projects and makes too many important decisions unilaterally. "I'm really disheartened with his lack of concern for the disabled community," says Gloria Nichols, cochairman of the Chicago chapter of ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Attendant Programs Today), the most militant of the disabled groups.

Gorski, who regards criticism as inevitable, especially given how diverse the disabled constituency is, prefers to talk about long-range goals, not internal skirmishes. "What I'm after," he says, "is integrating awareness and consciousness of the disabled into the whole economy, into the whole city--not just that we have physical access, but that people come to think differently about the disabled."

He has compiled and distributed to business and government groups citywide a "manual of style" defining politically correct and incorrect terms. The one all-purpose and always proper phrase is "people with disabilities" or "person with a disability." Terms that must go are "victim," "cripple," "deformed," "deaf," "dumb," "mute," "invalid," and "wheelchair bound." Also out are certain high sounding but phony adjectives like "inspirational," "handi-capable," "physically challenged," and that all time loser "differently abled." Even the neutral-sounding "handicapped" must go, says Gorski, because a handicap is "something negative, something put in a person's way." In his consciousness raising Gorski constantly accentuates the positive and appeals to goodwill and self-interest, with subtle reminders to slow learners that the disabled are one minority everyone is likely to be a member of someday.

Gorski was thinking about far different matters one day in 1969 when his life was permanently changed. An able-bodied 22-year-old structural engineering student at Northwestern University, he was sitting with two friends on the floor of his parents home in the north-side Norwood Park neighborhood discussing possible names for a business they were thinking of starting. Suddenly he felt a jolt in his elbow "like I'd been plugged into a 220-volt socket." The intense, tingling pain radiated up and down his arm and through his whole body. "I was hopping around, bouncing off the walls," he says. "I couldn't stand it."

His friends took him to a local hospital. The one step he took from the car to a waiting wheelchair was his last. Within an hour or so the pain dissipated, but so did all sensation in his arms and legs. He had become an instant paraplegic. Baffled by the sudden onset, especially when a superficial examination revealed no physical cause, doctors concluded his paralysis was psychosomatic and labeled his illness a nervous breakdown.

Gorski was transferred to a closed psychiatric unit, where he remained for 13 days before someone recommended a spinal tap. It revealed that he had suffered a hemorrhage in his back: a weak blood vessel had apparently ruptured and the spurt of blood had permanently severed critical nerves in his spinal cord. Gorski at this point was so relieved to learn he was not a mental case that he called his parents and said, "I've got good news--I'll never walk again. But I'm sane!"

During almost five months in the hospital he regained limited use of his hands, arms, and upper body, but his legs remain rigid. He later sued the hospital for negligence, and the case was settled out of court; reportedly Gorski received a sizable sum.

Though he admits he had occasional "depressed episodes" after the injury, Gorski seems to have quickly regained his poise and energy, eventually earning his degree at Northwestern. With a phone and copy machine (and later a fax) he set up Lawrence Gorski and Associates, a public-relations and consulting firm specializing in newsletters for nonprofit organizations. He also became an outspoken advocate for disabled rights, gradually easing himself in the mid-80s into positions where he believed he could make a difference. Mayor Harold Washington appointed him to his Advisory Council on Disabilities, and mayor Eugene Sawyer made him cochairman of his Equal Access Council. Gorski also became a leader and eventually chairman of the nonprofit group Illinois Voters with Disability, and it was in that capacity that he and his wheelchair began to squeak more loudly.

Observing that the city was virtually ignoring a federal law demanding that polling places be accessible to the disabled, Gorski became the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit against the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. The final settlement of that case, in 1989, required the board to install ramps and widen doors at many sites and to find alternative polling places where physical changes were not feasible. Gorski personally trained some 5,000 election judges on the voting rights of the disabled in the months following the settlement. "Before we sued," he says proudly, "28 percent of the polling places were accessible; now 80 percent are, and the number is growing."

In February 1990 he was present at City Hall along with other activists for a photo opportunity as Mayor Richard Daley announced city progress on accessibility. After the formalities, Daley innocently asked those present, "What else should we be doing?"

It was just the sort of opening Gorski loves. He ticked off 20 areas of concern--including parking, housing, and hiring--that in his judgment required immediate attention. Daley asked Gorski to hang around, and they ended up talking for 90 minutes. At the end of the discussion Daley offered Gorski the top job with the newly formed MOPD.

The 60 guests at the Lido Restaurant on Milwaukee Avenue shift a bit uncomfortably as Gorski wheels between their tables and takes his place in the center of the room. The occasion is a dinner of the Northside Bankers Association, and Gorski is here to set the bankers straight on their duties. He quickly points out, however, that he hasn't come to browbeat anyone. Nor, he adds, "am I here to tell you how to cover your tail against the demands of the Americans With Disabilities Act. I'm here to help, to show you how to increase your business by 16 percent."

His opening eases much of the tension. For the next 20 minutes he lays out his argument, interspersing his fast-paced delivery with low-key, often humorous asides and statistics: 67 percent of all people with disabilities are unemployed; 82 percent of disabled blacks are unemployed; federal and state benefits for these people are costing the taxpayers $200 billion a year. Getting the ADA implemented will cost about $60 billion, says Gorski, but the changes will allow large numbers of these unemployed to go to work. The net savings in benefits will be tremendous, he argues--not to mention the tax contributions of these formerly idle people and their heightened sense of self-worth.

"When they work;" says Gorski, his voice rising, "they will open bank accounts, they will take out loans for small businesses, they will become contributing members of society, and we will all benefit." Bankers, he argues, have everything to gain from hiring disabled employees and making their facilities accessible to disabled customers. "Just think about blind people for a minute," he says. "The blind don't generally have bank accounts--they go to currency exchanges because it's easier and simpler to do business there. You're missing a major market if your bank isn't accessible to the blind and if you don't advertise it as such."

Toward the end he interjects a sobering tale: in his graduating class of almost 1,000 at Lane Tech High School in the mid-60s, 90 percent went on to college; that same year the graduating class at Spalding, the one Chicago high school for the disabled, sent only 2 of its 105 graduates to college. "It's not that those people were incapable of high achievement," says Gorski. "It's that society wrote them off."

His double-barreled pitch to idealism and self-interest appears to pay off. The bankers applaud him warmly; some stay around for another 20 minutes to ask him questions privately. Later, as he wheels out of the Lido, Gorski is in high spirits. Education is the part of his job he likes best, and he talks to professional groups two or three times a week. "It's basically convincing people this is in everybody's best interests," he says. "This is not all that complicated an issue."

But his eyes narrow and he shakes his head in disgust when he talks about those "who just don't get it." High on this list is Governor Jim Edgar, who insists that public funds may not be provided for those who care for a disabled person at home, only for institutional care providers, such as nursing homes. "You could serve five times as many people at home for the cost of one nursing-home patient," Gorski says. "But Edgar won't budge--he doesn't get it." Another of his least favorites is Jerry Lewis, longtime host of the Labor Day telethon for muscular dystrophy. "They have to get rid of him," Gorski says. "I admit he's raised a lot of money, but we've outgrown that condescending, pat-on-the-head paternalism that's always been his trademark."

Gorski is particularly concerned about the vocal critics of the Americans With Disabilities Act, who insist that the law involves too much stick and too little carrot. On WTTW's Chicago Tonight Gorski debated Richard Epstein, a University of Chicago law professor and author of the book Forbidden Ground: The Case Against Employment Discrimination Laws. Government pressure through the ADA and other laws, Epstein insists, is a kind of 400-pound gorilla that will destroy small businesses. Exorbitantly expensive (and possibly unnecessary) building alterations will bankrupt some firms, he says, the use of slower-working, disabled employees may imperil productivity in others, and confusion about the specifics of the law will spawn a host of lawsuits everywhere. Besides, says Epstein, the preferences of customers, who may find it undesirable or inconvenient to deal with the blind, the hearing-impaired, or the immobile, "should not be disregarded." And indeed, there are already indications of strain. Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission officials in Chicago recently declared that their enforcement unit, which has suffered staff cuts, will be hard-pressed to handle the estimated 15 to 20 percent increase in ADA-related complaints.

Gorski sees no reason to panic. Any legislation as sweeping and untried as the ADA is bound to create turmoil for a while, he says. But he denies that making businesses and buildings accessible need be disastrously expensive, that employing the handicapped will throw work schedules into turmoil, and that increased litigation will bring the legal system to a state of gridlock. "Even if these arguments held any water, which they don't," he says, "we'd still have the rights argument. We're not talking about special privileges, we're talking about civil rights. Stuff happens to people. And when it does, their choices shouldn't have to be narrowed by their disabilities."

With that he wheels onto the lift of the MOPD van parked at the curb, is hoisted up and in, and nods to the driver, who will take him home. He's already said that he will remain restless and uneasy until he finishes the "simple job" he was given--"to change the face of the city."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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