Graphic: The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement

James Donald

Audio transcript: On disability legislation and the legislative process
Date: January 23, 1998
Interviewer: Kathy Cowan

Note: Transcripts have been lightly edited; therefore there may be slight discrepancies with audio clips.

It was a wonderful experience because all of a sudden I embodied the problems that I wanted to solve. In a sense, it's a perfect political appointment because if I had a problem personally, I would try to legislate it, solve the problem, for everybody else. For example, I got a van that I could drive from my chair, which was one of the very first vans, in fact—I got a used van that was the prototype for driving from a wheelchair. I got it from an older quadriplegic who was moving up in the world. I got his old bread truck type thing, with the rope handles to close the doors and stuff. I couldn't get auto insurance because of my disability, so in a fit I went back and wrote a draft law and got one of the legislators whom I was getting to know to sponsor it, and they just jumped on it. They liked this sort of stuff back then because disability was the new movement. And it became law the next year.

Who were the legislators who were particularly accepting of you?

Leroy Greene, who was I think an assemblyman, later a senator, from L.A. area. I'll think of names as we go along.

But that would be the process. You or someone would think of something that should be legislated and take it to someone who—

Yes, but that process changed. In the beginning the governor—we just went, got the legislator to accept the law, and then somewhere along the process the governor's office would have to approve it as an administration bill. After a few of these, they said, "Wait a minute. You can't do it that way. You have to get approval from the governor's office before you do it, before you promote any of these."

So I tried that two or three times, and the governor had a new legislative coordinator called B.T. Collins. I don't know if you've heard that name. He became a very famous fellow after a while. He was a Vietnam-era veteran who refused to be recognized as a disabled person, even though he had one arm and one leg blown off from a land mine during Vietnam. He was an irascible, foul-mouthed, hard-drinking Irishman. After a while, I found out he wasn't going to let any of my ideas through because they conflicted with other loyalties that Brown had in various ways with other legislators who were against what we wanted.

Another obstacle I had in getting legislation approved by the governor's office was finance because it always cost money, and they always said no. Several times I had to deal directly—take it up to the governor and get his approval. I remember Brown was never on time, and we had to wait and wait, and one time I had to wait about six or seven hours to get this one program, bill, approved, and I finally got it approved. He never did understand it, but he approved it, in opposition to his finance director and everybody else.

He had a very short attention span. He'd ask me a question, "Is this this?" "No, Governor, it's this." And I'd start to explain it. "Is this this?" "No." "Aw, you can have it."

Do you remember what that was?

That was a little later on in the administration. It was a bill to fund bringing a lot of different state programs in compliance with the new 504 regulations from the federal government. It had a multimillion-dollar impact, and he never understood it, but he approved it.

And that was the process you had to use now, his approval first.

Now that he's not governor, I'll tell you how we did it [chuckling]. We learned that if we wanted to get a bill passed, we would get one of the local—I would write it or one of my staff would write it, and then we would take it to a community group, like CIL. Depending on what the topic was, we'd take it to a different group that had legislators here who had influence in that area. And then they would introduce it, and after it was introduced, we would seek to get administration approval, position, for an existing bill. And that's how we got most of our legislation passed.

End of transcript

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