- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Most people know her as Rebecca "Becky" Ogle, but there are those in the fight for disabled Americans who call her the Gen. George S. Patton Jr. of the disabilities movement she doesn't give up any ground and accepts nothing but victory.

Ms. Ogle's objective is to put more paychecks in the wallets of the disabled. She could tackle other issues that would help brighten the lives of the disabled, but right now she's saying to Congress or anybody else who will listen: Show me the money.

Ms. Ogle was appointed executive director of the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities by President Clinton in 1998.

Human rights advocate Justin Dart thinks the president couldn't have picked a better fighter.

"I've probably known Becky 15 years now. We worked together in the 1980s trying to get the ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] legislation passed. To say she's energetic is a gross understatement. Becky is one of a kind enormously talented and knowledgeable. I call her the Gen. Patton of our movement. She's very outspoken and plain-spoken," says Mr. Dart, the 1998 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his five decades of advocacy in the United States, Mexico, Japan and other nations.

"She does her type of George Patton advocacy, and she can carry it off. Some people can, and some can't… . I've worked very closely with her for the past six to seven years, and she's absolutely magnificent. I don't think she ever stops working Saturdays, Sundays, early in the mornings, late into the night. It's no surprise to have Becky Ogle call you at 10 p.m. with some mandate," he says.

Ms. Ogle has fought for years for equality on behalf of the disabled on issues such as transportation, medical equipment and education. With the Consortium of Citizens With Disabilities, she lobbied for the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

"Working with other disability groups was the first time I felt I didn't need to be fixed," Ms. Ogle says. "This was the only time the disability community has really come together to work in unison. It was about a shared experience we had all felt an inability to fully participate in society."

Today, Ms. Ogle and an estimated 48 million disabled individuals celebrate the 10th anniversary of the ADA, which President Bush signed into law at a White House ceremony. The civil rights act prohibits discrimination against the disabled in employment, public accommodations and transportation.

Ms. Ogle was born in Knoxville, Tenn., with spina bifida, a condition in which the spinal cord is exposed at birth. Spina bifida results from a failure of the spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. In severe cases, the spinal cord protrudes through the back. The condition can cause bowel and bladder complications.

"The major restrictions I felt in life focused around the school systems in Knoxville, Tenn.," says Ms. Ogle, 44. "I grew up in the late 1950s, when there wasn't a lot of awareness concerning disabilities.

"I was out a lot due to surgeries. Sometimes my mom home-schooled me. Eventually, it got to a place where it was difficult for schools to know how to deal with me… . I lacked a lot of control, and there was lots of peer pressure trying to fit in," she says.

"I was constantly at doctors' offices. Whenever I went, I thought, 'They can fix me.' I wasn't treated like a person with a disability I was treated like I was broken and could be fixed… .

"It was unrealistic. I should have been developing skills and learning to be with myself the way I was," she says.

Ms. Ogle, who is also a double amputee, got a new attitude when she moved in 1988 to the Washington area, where she found a community with whom she shared something in common.

"I went to work for the Spina Bifida Association in 1989 as the director of governmental affairs, and it coincided with the ADA work," she says. "So it gave me an opportunity to be around some of the best leaders in disability rights in the country and in the world. It was probably the turning point in my life."

The doors opened with the landmark civil rights law, but attitudes also must change, Ms. Ogle says.

For instance, she dismisses complaints about the cost of ADA-required reconfigurations of buildings, saying the law allows exceptions in making existing buildings accessible to the handicapped.

Ms. Ogle says that if businesses and nonprofit groups cannot afford modifications, they can develop policies that allow the handicapped access, such as a dry cleaner opting to deliver laundry to disabled customers.

The task force, led by U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman, includes 18 Cabinet members, federal agency directors and former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho, who serves as the panel's vice chairman. The task force must develop and coordinate a national strategy to improve unemployment rates for people with disabilities by July 26, 2002.

A difficult task? You bet, but the petite blonde isn't discouraged. Instead, she's energized.

"We knew that coming into this [the disabled] had a history of isolation, segregation and discrimination… . It is a reality. We have historically been excluded," Ms. Ogle says.

"Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, we are up to the task," she says from her office at the Labor Department on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Miss Herman convened a round-table of key players that included Social Security Administration Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel and Donna E. Shalala, secretary of health and human services.

"They hold all of the pieces of the puzzle. President Clinton and Vice President [Al] Gore felt that it was important for them to have their own house in order, so our first year's activities revolved around making the federal government a model employer," Ms. Ogle says.

This year, Ms. Ogle says, she got full support and funding for the Ticket to Work and Work Incentive Improvement Act of 1999, which was signed into law in December.

"That allows people with disabilities to no longer have to choose between health care and a job. Disabled people will not lose their health care coverage if they enter the work force," Ms. Ogle says.

Plus, she says, a new office at the Labor Department is in the works. The creation of the office ensures a heightened presence for disability policy within the Labor Department "the advocate for the worker," Ms. Ogle says.

"It's not about the creation of separate programs any longer. It's about making the existing programs work for everybody," she says.

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