Ability, not disability

Sen. Chuck Graham takes time to talk to visiting students between sessions on April 27.

Greg Salzer

Sen. Chuck Graham takes time to talk to visiting students between sessions on April 27.

Greg Salzer

JEFFERSON CITY – As a freshman Representative in 1997, Graham was the first wheelchair user ever elected to the House.

Having been term limited out of the House, Graham now serves as the Senator from the 19th district.

His office on the third floor has been modified to accommodate his wheelchair in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In 1990, Graham was recognized for his leadership in helping to pass the ADA.

“[Since 1990,] I have seen improvement in physical accommodations in terms of gas stations, restaurants, hotels and those sorts of thing,” Graham said.

“What I have not seen is an increase in employment opportunities for people with disabilities,” he said.

Graham said the unemployment rate of around 70 percent for people with disabilities is partly result of a “lack of access to health care coverage.”

“I think small businesses are afraid to hire people with disabilities because of what it will do to their health insurance costs, or we have people with disabilities who rely on Medicaid and can’t go to work,” Graham said.

“One of the detrimental things that has been done in this years budget is they [republicans] are taking out the Ticket to Work program which allows people to go to work and become tax paying citizens and still receive their health care coverage,” Graham said.

“They have eliminated that, which is going to take almost 9,000 people with disabilities still working and most will probably go back on public assistance instead of working and paying taxes.”

Graham’s only occupation is that of senator, but he is active in his community and serves on several statewide boards, including Missouri Protection and Advocacy (P&A) and the Governor’s Council on Disability.

“P&A plays a critical role in trying to make sure that the laws we pass that give opportunities people with disabilities, whether it is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Fair Housing Act, are properly enforced,” Graham said.

“They are a legal resource for people with disabilities.”

Missouri Protection and Advocacy is a federally mandated program to protect the legal rights for persons with disabilities. Established in 1977, Missouri P&A is a collection of various programs, each targeted at a specific population of persons with disabilities.

Graham serves as a member of another statewide organization promoting rights for individuals with disabilities.

“Gov. Bob Holden asked me to serve as the Governor’s Council on Disability,” Graham said.

The Missouri Governor’s Council on Disability provides educational seminars, information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, and promotes equal and full employment opportunities for persons with disabilities.

“Every American has potential. We need to help people with disabilities, especially, to realize their potential,” Graham said.

“I would like America to focus more on the abilities of people with disabilities, than focusing on their condition,” he said.

Graham received a Bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

As the senator from Columbia, Graham maintains a close connection to the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Earlier this year when the Southwest Missouri State University name change legislation was in the Senate, Graham maintained a filibuster preventing the measure from going to a vote until assured MU maintained its flagship status.

Graham said he sees potential on campus for individuals with disabilities.

“What I have wanted to see happen for some time and is beginning to happen, is more inclusion of students with disabilities in everyday campus life, whether it is belonging to Greek organizations, or service organizations, or running for governing boards,” Graham said.

“I would like to see them branch out and be more of an included group, rather than a group that exists onto themselves,” he said.

Although only in his first term as a Missouri state senator, Graham has an eye toward future political opportunities.

Graham said he would wait until the end of the current legislative session before discussing plans.

A handful of activists in Jefferson City for Disability Rights Legislative Day on April 27 carried signs stating, “Graham for Governor in 2008.”