Woman Fights for Equal Access

Published in the Asbury Park Press 11/21/02

In September, when Red Bank agreed to spend $1 million to correct violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, officials publicly wondered who complained to the Justice Department.

Turns out it was an Equalizer.

Carolyn Schwebel, a retired guidance counselor from the Leonardo section of Middletown, is the co-chairwoman of the Equalizers, a loosely knit group of advocates for people with disabilities.

"I don't know why they couldn't figure out it was me," said Schwebel, 59. "I had been talking to them about these issues for a long time."

In addition to her efforts in Red Bank, she's served for a decade on the Monmouth County Human Relations Commission and worked to correct violations of the ADA -- the wide-ranging civil rights legislation signed into law by President George H. Bush in 1990 -- in Middletown, Shrewsbury and Little Silver.

Her Red Bank victory started with a complaint about paving stones on Broad Street and ended up with a host of violations around the borough. Now she says a complaint about Middletown is ready to be sent to the Justice Department.

As far as advocates for the rights of people with disabilities go, Schwebel sees herself as a moderate, but one who sticks to her principles. When some of her friends see someone parked illegally in an wheelchair accessible spot, they will slap a sticker on the car that says "This Jerk Violates Accessible Parking Spaces."

Schwebel -- who went to college in the '60s and exudes an Earth Mother kind of cheery serenity -- will just place the sticker or a flyer that says "Parking here 'For Just a Minute' is 60 seconds too long," under the windshield wiper.

She has lived with John, her husband of 30 years, in Middletown since the early '70s and has dealt with cerebral palsy since she was diagnosed with it as a child growing up in Vermont.

Her motivations for tackling accessibility problems across the county are many.

She uses a "rollator," a walker with wheels to get around and said she encounters violations of the ADA almost daily, whether she's voting or shopping or getting a cup of coffee with a friend.

The second reason, she said, is that the law is the law. She said she can't and won't tolerate those who believe the ADA should be less binding than any other statute.

The third, she said, is that her nearly 30 years experience in education, coupled with her experiences growing up, make her want to ensure the best possible world for children growing up with disabilities today.

"There is a little Carolyn inside me someplace, and she is remembering the past and other things she's seen in the schools, and she wants to make it better for children," she said.

When Keansburg's acting Police Chief Michael Kennedy was caught on tape using a racial slur to refer to a group of black people and some people complained that it was only black people making an issue of the racial slur, Schwebel came to a Keansburg meeting to demonstrate the power of words.

When she was a child, some children teased her about her condition by singing the lyrics to the novelty song "One-Eyed One-Horned Flying Purple People Eater." So she brought a toy modeled after the song's lyrics and pressed a button on it that launched the monster into a rendition of its eponymous song.

"I wanted people to realize the power of words," Schwebel said. "This was something that happened to me nearly 50 years ago, yet it stayed with me till this day."

It is similar failures of imagination that stop local officials from understanding how important the details -- even if it's just a matter of inches -- are in the Americans With Disabilities Act, she said.

When asked to describe why inches -- in a curb cut or other modification -- are so vital, Schwebel held up depiction of stick figure who was in a wheelchair but is laying face first on the ground and said: "This is why. One inch might as well be one foot. It can keep people from going somewhere."

After the Red Bank decision came out, Schwebel and Red Bank Mayor Edward J. McKenna Jr. exchanged letters in local papers about the importance of those very issues.

McKenna and other borough officials said they were stunned by the Justice Department investigation because Red Bank had made great strides, build-ing a new senior center and moving borough hall and police headquarters to its new more accessible location.

Borough Administrator Stanley J. Sickels said Schwebel's origi-nal complaint was based on the paving stones used in the rede-sign of Broad Street. Schwebel said the grooves in the pavers made it more difficult for peo-ple who use wheelchairs or oth-er aids to get around.

Traffic engineers advised the borough that paving stones made it clear to motorists that they were driving over a cross-walk, thereby making things safer for the pedestrian, Sickels said.

Sickels said the Justice Depart-ment settlement focused on smaller details in newer struc-tures, such as the library and the senior center, and found major problems with old struc-tures, such as the Count Basie Stadium and the Red Bank Public Library, which were built more than 60 years ago.

"We've spent millions of dollars making Red Bank more accessi-ble to all people, that was was the main impetus for moving our buildings," Sickels said. "She doesn't want to give us credit for that."

Middletown officials said they have been working toward greater accessibility.

"We've been pretty pro-active, working with her on a number of issues," Township Commit-teeman Raymond J. O'Grady said. "It's an important issue for us one that we have not shirked off."

Schwebel, who recently spent thousands of dollars making her own home more accessible, said she does give credit for past efforts. But she points to the beautification program in the Lincroft section of Middle-town as evidence that new im-pediments to accessibility are sprouting up regularly. She said benches and garbage cans added to the sidewalk along Route 520 make it tougher to maneuver.

Officials "have the conception that you can be a little preg-nant. It is the same way with the ADA. Either you are com-pliant or you are not," Schwebel said.

Michael Clancy: (732) 643-4076 or mclancy@app.com

Equalizers  equalizers.org

U.S. Department of Justice Department's ADA homepage  www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm