Twenty staff members, clients and friends of the Forest Park-based Progress Center for Independent Living participated in the 12th Annual Disability Pride Parade last Saturday in downtown Chicago and at the festival at Daley Plaza following the parade.

Although several hundred people from agencies dealing with handicapped issues from all over the Chicago area marched in the parade, very few people were watching along the parade route on Dearborn Street, which disappointed Horacio Esparza, the Progress Center’s executive director.

“I enjoyed the parade,” he said, “but we in the handicapped community already know about our needs and about the law. We need to educate more people about what we are doing here.”

Esparza blamed the media for the lack of people watching the parade. 

“We need more media coverage,” Esparza said. “The purpose of the parade is not for ourselves but to educate society. If the media don’t give us exposure then people aren’t going to come out and watch.”

John Conversa, the director of manufacturing at Ferrara Pan Candy Company, is neither a client nor a staff member of the Progress Center. He became involved with handicapped issues after attending a community outreach breakfast at the Mohr Center. 

“I think that there is a lot of learning that needs to be done,” Conversa said. 

Although most of the estimated 1,000 handicapped rights activists in Daley Plaza following the parade would agree with Esparza and Conversa, their disappointment didn’t show. The mood in the plaza as they checked out more than 40 booths and listened to a speech by the parade’s grand marshal, former U.S. Senator from Iowa Tom Harkin, was joyful and celebrative, even playful.

There were lots of hugs and smiles. Many at Daley Plaza posed for photos next to a huge inflatable likeness of Justin Dart, the “Godfather of the ADA.” Agencies were giving away candy, bottle openers and refrigerator magnets as well as information about the work they were doing. One T-shirt declared, “The only real disability in life is a bad attitude.”

Kim Liddell, an information and referral advocate at the Progressive Center’s office in Blue Island, handed out information at the Progress Center’s booth with her golden Labrador retriever guide dog lying at her feet.

“I feel great being here today,” Liddell said. “We’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]. People are asking questions and every now and then we get somebody who needs help with a disability-related issue.”

A few minutes after she spoke, a young man approached her and asked about a care giver for his mother.

Clark Craig, who is a community organizing advocate at the Progress Center, was also excited about the Road to Freedom bus, which was parked at the Daley Plaza and had been at the Park District of Forest Park the day before. 

The bus has been touring the country with an exhibit by photojournalist Tom Olin, which documents the struggle for equal rights by people with handicaps.

Perhaps the phrase which captured the mood in Daley Plaza last Saturday was the name of the event itself: Disability Pride Parade. Marybeth Fox-Grimm, an independent living advocate at the Progress Center, enjoyed the whole event, but added, “When the celebration ends, we can’t sit back and take it easy. The fight must go on. As long as the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is 70 percent, we need to fight for improvement. 

“We must continue to advocate to increase opportunities for people with disabilities, especially in employment and with affordable, accessible housing.”