- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2000

He called it a dream assignment.
Chad Swiatecki, a young reporter at the Flint Journal in Michigan, was downright elated when his editors asked him to cover a campaign appearance by Al Gore and Joseph I. Lieberman when they whisked through town Sunday.
It was a first for Mr. Swiatecki, a chance to break out of his suburban beat and into the political realm just four months out of college. He was primed, ready to deliver the goods.
Mr. Gore and his entourage were not quite ready for him, however.
Mr. Swiatecki has been in a wheelchair since childhood, a reality that has posed no problems in his life as a journalist, he said.
At least, not until the Gore campaign.
Mr. Swiatecki was told by the vice president's "spokespeople" that the campaign stop was "inaccessible to wheelchairs." He would not be allowed, they told him, to follow the motor pool in his car, or ride with other journalists in the press van.
This policy came from a campaign that has promised to look after the disabled population.
Last night, Mr. Gore called Mr. Swiatecki at home to apologize.
In the past, the vice president vowed to defend the Americans With Disabilities Act, a landmark measure signed into law by President Bush in 1990, guaranteeing disabled Americans access to public and private buildings.
On the 10th anniversary of the act in late July, Mr. Gore announced plans for a "Fund for Independence" to help disabled people in their homes and at the workplace.
"There are millions of Americans who are held back, not because they have a disability, but because that disability is misunderstood," Mr. Gore told 800 disabled activists. "They are not recognized for the abilities they have."
Mr. Swiatecki's abilities were apparently overlooked ironically after a spokesman declared Tuesday that the vice president held "the members of the fourth estate in very high regard."
But the young reporter in Flint, some 60 miles inland from Lake Huron in the eastern part of the state, was undeterred.
He tried to reason with Gore campaign workers. Why had he been denied access? He only got a smile from someone's "pert" assistant, he said, but no explanations as to why "the man who wants to be my next president wasn't willing to meet my needs."
Mr. Swiatecki did not want to compromise his readers with an incomplete story and bowed out but not before writing a terse, first-person account of his experiences, which appeared Tuesday in the Flint Journal.
"They say the squeaky wheel is the one that gets greased," he wrote. "Well, Al, I've got four of them. Can you hear them yet?"
Mr. Gore himself may have missed them but the public and media got the message loud and clear. In less than 24 hours, Mr. Swiatecki received more than 500 supportive e-mails from his readers and calls from more than 20 news organizations, including CNN, anxious for the details.
So many calls came, in fact, that Mr. Swiatecki had to switch desks in order to meet a deadline yesterday.
"I'm not a political aficionado. I'm not out to bash anyone," Mr. Swiatecki told The Washington Times. "I just wanted to tell people how unbelievable this is, 10 years after the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed."
But Bill Freeman, president of the 60,000-member American Disability Association, said he was not surprised.
"It's this kind of an embarrassment which can teach the public about reality. The message to disabled people is 'accommodate yourself if you can.' That's the reality," he said.
Mr. Swiatecki said that a Gore campaign worker initially called him Tuesday evening to express "disappointment" in his story. Later that night, Gore spokeswoman Kim Ruby placed another call to Mr. Swiatecki, this time to apologize on behalf of the campaign.
By early last evening, he had been notified by the campaign that Mr. Gore would call to express his regrets. Mr. Swiatecki, however, is more concerned with the outcome of the incident.
"They have decided to redo their checklist of details for Al and Joe's campaign to be more accessible. That to me is a very positive thing," Mr. Swiatecki said.
The Bush campaign took the opportunity to weigh in on the matter.
"It's really disappointing that this reporter was treated this way by the Gore campaign," Dan Bartlett, spokesman for Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, said yesterday. "Governor Bush understands the importance of access for the disabled, which he has addressed in the 'New Freedom Initiative.' "
The program, Mr. Bartlett said, would devote $1 billion to assist disabled people with new technology, telecommuting equipment, tax breaks and low-interest loans, among other things.

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