AccessLife Online Chat with Christopher Reeve
Christopher Reeve - Disabilities and the Presidential Election
October 19, 2000
Actor, director and activist Christopher Reeve discusses national issues connected to the presidential election and disabled community.
AccessLife: Welcome to our chat with actor, director and activist Christopher Reeve. This chat is sponsored by Health Extras and presented by AccessLife.com--a Web site that provides news, information and products for the disability community and their caregivers. Chris, thanks for joining us!
Christopher Reeve: It's my pleasure and privilege to chat with everyone who's logged on tonight. The first thing I want to say is that I watched all three debates, and even in the third debate, when there were two people in wheelchairs in the front row, I never heard either candidate speak about disability, nor were they asked any questions about their policies on disability. Considering that, right now, 54,000,000 Americans are disabled--that's one fifth of the population-- I'm shocked the topic never came up and I think it's indicative of how far we still have to go to be part of the national agenda.
Zman: Chris, what are the most important priorities for people with disabilities that the next president should be aware of?
Christopher Reeve: That people with disabilities want to be treated with respect. They want control over their own destinies, they want equal opportunity, and they want to be brought in from the margins of society and into the mainstream. Here's an example. It's been proven by several studies that when a disabled person is given a job, that the other workers who are able-bodied have to work harder to catch up because the worker with the disability is so highly motivated. I hope that in the immediate future employers will overcome their discomfort or anxieties about hiring disabled people, and will give us an opportunity to demonstrate ability, instead of disability.
Zman: Chris, what's the best way people with disabilities can promote awareness of disability issues and concerns to people without disabilities and to the government?
Christopher Reeve: Well, I think it's important to be visible. It's very easy to become depressed and anti-social, to sometimes not get out of bed or not leave the house. I've seen this many times, but that's very counterproductive, particularly with people who have only been injured for a relatively short period of time. I would urge everyone to get out and about, and to maintain personal discipline to challenge your mind and your body to be productive. At the very least, that gives us higher self-esteem. In other words, we should not be defined by our disability. We are normal people.
Melina: I would like to know why Christopher Reeve does not support MiCASA (Medicaid Community/Attendant Services Act) with the same passion he supports the cure. MiCASA is for here and now for any kind of disability. Melina Fatsiou-Cowan
Christopher Reeve: I'm an advocate for care as well as cure, and I'm the Vice Chairman of the National Organization on Disability. Our main concern is quality of life issues. I hold that position as well as being the chairman of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. Our main mission is the search for a cure, Even so, 30 percent of our revenue goes to quality of life grants so that within our research objectives, we are still giving out approximately $1 to 2 million a year for quality of life.
Zman: Has last year's Super Bowl commercial raised awareness for SCI research?
Christopher Reeve: Yes, I'm happy to say that people are still talking about the commercial! Whether or not they liked it, it kept the conversation going. In order to make an impact with government or with health care providers, insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, the issue must be in their face all the time. I feel the commercial achieved that objective, and I'd like to say that I do not think it was irresponsible because it was clearly set at some point in the future. Secondly, I conferred with the world's leading researchers about the commercial, and the image of me walking. Not one of them felt that that would be irresponsible.
Lazyboy3: if you were given the ability to walk, will you talk about important issues still?
Christopher Reeve: If I were to walk (and I do believe that day will come), I will be so overwhelmed with gratitude that I'm sure I will spend the rest of my life trying to make sure that others have the same opportunity that everyone who is disabled, who wants to recover, should have the opportunity to go as far as they can, or want to go.
Theresa in Tampa: How do you think your quest for finding a cure for spinal cord injury has impacted the disability community?
Christopher Reeve: In the four years that I've been working with researchers, I've experienced tremendous support for my efforts. I'm constantly asked about the progress science has been making, and I think that 90 percent of people with spinal cord injuries want the most recovery they can possibly get. I believe that there are many people in wheelchairs today that don't need to be. I'm working in collaboration with a scientist at UCLA who has discovered that there is energy and memory stored in the spinal cord that can be used in the following ways. He's been able to take people who are injured in the thoracic levels who have use of their upper bodies, and put them on treadmills (the same kind you'd find in any gym). After about 60 days of training every day on the treadmill for about an hour, these patients have been able to walk on their own. There are currently at least 10 centers in the USA that offer this therapy, and more are springing up around the world. In fact, he just returned from setting up some centers in Germany. I think that it's not a cure. The brain is not involved in this, because of the injury. But the physical therapy has literally enabled some quadriplegics to walk again and resume a normal life. This is something I've seen with my own eyes, and I think that every rehab center in the country should have these treadmills. I'm working very hard to make that happen.
Plov123: What issues are you dealing with right now in the upcoming election and why?
Christopher Reeve: I'm concerned about the whole spectrum of issues that will affect our future, not just health issues, or issues pertaining to disability, I'm very concerned about the environment, gun control, about education, and about the quality of life for all of us as the population explosion remains. I think it's a good idea for all of us who are disabled not to focus exclusively on our issues, but to remember that we are regular citizens who have a lot of issues and we should study the candidates with regard to their positions on a wide variety of issues. I happen to believe that Vice President Gore, while not a smooth politician or the most natural person, is nevertheless a much better candidate for President. We must remember that likeability should not be the determining factor in a presidential race. I want to give one example of why I support Gore, and it's a health care issue. You may have heard him refer to a bill in the Senate sponsored by Ingle and Norwood. It's already passed the House with full bipartisan support and it only needs one more vote of support to pass in the Senate. This legislation would create a real patient's bill of rights that would control and hopefully eliminate abuses by HMOs, and would have a tremendous impact on the disability community. When he asked George Bush whether or not he would support that legislation, he did not get a yes or no answer. It was a very simple question, and I feel we were entitled to a yes or no answer from Bush.
But then I did some research, and discovered that during the campaign, Bush has accepted $1.4 million from insurance companies and that he only is willing to support reform of federally funded HMOs. Yet 135 million Americans pay for private insurance, and he would not do anything to regulate them or interfere with the way they operate. So I feel that Bush is not forthcoming in his answers. When he was confronted with the fact that Texas is 50th in the nation in providing health care for children, he was asked by Gore and by the moderator whether or not that accusation was true or false. Once again, he would not answer it, and merely said that his was a compassionate state, and that last year they spent over $4 billion. Nevertheless, he ducked the question. I think that he'll duck a lot of questions. I also think that he would be terrible for the environment because he has ties to the oil industry and also supports clean coal technology, which is really backwards thinking. No matter what you do, you can't get rid of all the sulfur that's in the coal, and that would continue to cause acid rain and other pollution. Whereas Gore is saying let's work on synthetic fuels, alternate energy sources, the electric car. That means taking a risk, but a decision about progressive technology that will be beneficial to the country as well as creating jobs. I feel Bush is basically looking backwards and is tied to big oil, big insurance, big corporations that really don't care about doing the right thing for our society and for the future of the planet.
TKay: Which political party seems to have more programs in place to help cure spinal cord injuries? I really have enjoyed all your movies through the years. Thanks for being a great talent and a great motivator/advocate.
Christopher Reeve: Fortunately, Republicans and Democrats have been working very well together. Senator Harken, who is a Democrat and Senator Specter, who is a Republican, are both very concerned about the disabled population. Congressman Porter has been a leader, as has Congressman Jeffers. In my opinion, the greatest achievement of the government has been made possible with bipartisan support. For example, the space program, the Civil Rights Act, and now both parties agree that the budget of the NIH should be doubled.
We are now on the threshold of finding ways to cure diseases from MS to Parkinson's to diabetes to heart disease and cancer, among many others. Both parties understand that as the life expectancy of the average American will reach 85 or 90 years old within the next fifteen years. It is very important to cure the diseases that may attack the aging population. Fortunately, biomedical research is no longer speculative. We're seeing concrete results and that's what the members of the Appropriations Committee want to see in order to justify spending more money on research. But almost every day, we're hearing about new discoveries that will affect the entire American family. So don't give up on Washington. Occasionally the folks down there do work together!
Joyce340: Chris, isn't it true that without the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 by President Bush the disabled would not have come as far as they have come in terms of opportunities and lessening discrimination? Governor Bush would take up for the disabled as his father has done.
Christopher Reeve: It's true that ADA was a crucial part of George Bush's legacy. I do believe that his son would continue in his father's footsteps. In fact, he's proposing something called Freedom Initiative. He plans to spend $1.25 billion over the next five years to expand access, to assist in technologies to integrate Americans with disabilities into the workforce, and to remove all barriers to full participation in community life.
Samm: Why do you think that all political candidates when talking about education never include education for special needs children?
Christopher Reeve: I think that, unfortunately, the way candidates get elected is by addressing the concerns of the largest audience. Minorities, such as people who need special ed, or people with mental health issues, don't show up on their radar screens. I do think, however, that once they're in office, then they start to take on a broader spectrum of issues. Again, it really is a fact that the squeakiest wheel gets the grease, so it's important that we make more noise. I do think, on the issue of special education and disabilities, that both candidates are compassionate and do want to help.
Actually, to find out more about their positions, you should go to their websites and find their position papers. For Bush, log on georgebush.com, and for Gore it's algore2000.com, then scroll through to Disabilities. Both of them are very good on this issue. But again, when you vote, I do suggest that you not vote simply based on this issue. As a regular citizen, you have to consider their positions on the whole spectrum of issues that we face.
Marty3: Hello Christopher. Would you ever consider running for public office in the future?
Christopher Reeve: And give up my influence in Washington?? The reason I've never run for office is because the process of getting elected is so corrupt. Until there's serious campaign finance reform, I wouldn't consider it again. If we were to have a system where there was no soft money, and in fact, no contributions from the private sector at all, then you would begin to see some really talented people who should be in office come out of the woodwork, but right now, you can't get elected without the influence of special interests.
To give you an example, I was asked to run for Congress from northwestern Massachusetts, where I have a second home. The largest employer in that district is General Electric and they employ more than 7,000 people. In order to win the election, a candidate would need their endorsement. Yet their environmental practices are horrific, to say the least. So I would have a real problem asking for their endorsement when I object so strenuously to their lack of concern with the environment. Now, politics is always a trade-off, but I feel that, speaking as a private citizen or the chairman of a foundation or on behalf of the NOD, there's no compromise. I have the freedom to say what I actually believe, rather than what would get me elected.
GG: Chris, what do you think about more technology-based funding for kids who are brain injured physically, but not mentally challenged? Could the government give up some much needed funds for computers that talk for them?
Christopher Reeve: Yes, the National Institute of Health's budget will have been doubled by the year 2003, and there is money available to provide that kind of technology. In fact, under Bush's plan, there is an entity called the Rehabilitative Engineering Research Center and they work on assisting technology. He would triple their budget. Already, those candidates are talking about using the latest technology designing, new technologies to benefit people who have been left out in the past.
Semi: Are you finding Washington more open to the issues of the disabled, i.e. research, access, income that keeps us/them from poverty?
Christopher Reeve: Yes, I have made about ten trips to the Hill since my injury in 1995. Each time I go back, I find that members of Congress are becoming more and more aware of the problems we face, and they are more willing to appropriate funds to help us. Research is progressing successfully and rapidly, and that has created a new level of interest on the Hill. Every one of our representatives probably knows someone, possibly someone very close to them, who is suffering from a disease or disability that was once considered incurable, but now there's hope.
Joyce: Chris, thanks again for doing this chat. I have to disagree with you about Gore. If he is as different from Clinton as you claim, wouldn't he have been the first (or second) to resign from the Clinton Administration at the height of the scandals to best further himself from Clinton?
Christopher Reeve: I don't see the logic of that. They're two different people, and Clinton is responsible for his actions, and Gore is responsible for his own actions. But I don't feel it was appropriate for him to resign in protest. Otherwise, every Senator or Congressman should have been expected to do the same. Certainly those who were staunch backers of Clinton. I believe that Clinton is responsible for himself, and we'll see what legal action is taken against him when he leaves office. But you can't expect the entire administration, or even just the Vice President, to resign as a symbol of disapproval.
Allan Appel: As a national celebrity and spokesperson, how will you balance the disability community's position that national funding is needed both for curative research as well as for other support and caregiver issues?
Christopher Reeve: I believe I answered that by explaining that I am the Vice Chairman of the NOD. Of course, the focus of the NOD is on the immediate needs of the disabled population. I'm also the Chairman of a foundation that focuses on research. So I think that, as an advocate for both care and cure, I'm doing the job that someone in my position should be expected to do.
AL staff: How can we make education more accessible for students with disabilities--physical and mental?
Christopher Reeve: I know that Al Gore's position would be seen in his first budget, and he would make the single largest funding increase ever enacted under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which would provide students with disabilities access to a free and appropriate public education.
AccessLife: Christopher, thank you for taking the time to be here, and for advocating so diligently for those who live with disabilities. What final thoughts would you leave with the audience tonight?
Christopher Reeve: Never underestimate the possibilities. Even though we all have different attitudes and emotions about our disability, I think that we should all respect each other's point of view and work together to make government accountable to the one fifth of the population that we represent. I do think that, because of new technologies and greater tolerance, we are the last great civil rights movement in this country. We are poised for success because there are so many of us that we can't be ignored. But it takes a very aggressive approach, as all civil rights movements do.
We have nothing to be afraid of, and I think that we should start in our own communities by getting out, maximizing our potentials, becoming part of the community, and demanding not to be relegated to the sidelines. That will create a very powerful grassroots organization and will effect change. So don't despair. I know personally, as I'm sure all of you do, that sometimes it's hard to face the day because life may be very difficult. But I think that the future is going to be a more enlightened time than the past, and we will succeed just as long as we don't let cynicism or anger get the best of us.
AccessLife: Thank you for participating in AccessLife.com's first of three live chats with Christopher Reeve and to our sponsor, Health Extras. Remember to think of AccessLife.com as your one stop on the Internet for news, information and products for the disability community and their caregivers.
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