Tuesday, December 12, 2000
By Sonia Boin
Montgomery Bureau Chief
ROCKVILLE -- She has her own apartment in Rockville, commutes to her job in Washington by Metro and, like everyone else, she says, "I have good days and bad days."
Margaret "Muffi" Lavigne considers herself "extremely lucky that I get to carry my source of unconditional love everywhere I go."
That source, a standard schnauzer service dog named "Rudy," not only rides the Metro with Ms. Lavigne, but he'll also be on the plane with her next summer when she heads to Denver to compete as Maryland's Ms. Wheelchair for the national title.
As the state title winner for 2001, she has enthusiastically embraced a role as a public speaker on behalf of a "double whammy" minority, a woman with disabilities, as well as "service dog awareness."
Born with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, a progressive muscle weakness that wasn't diagnosed until she was 7, Ms. Lavigne will be delivering the message that "disability is a normal, natural part of life, not something that's wrong with you and you need to be fixed. It's society that has to be fixed."
The 29-year-old said, "People see me every day. I commute like everyone else. I go to the grocery store. Society is getting so they don't think twice about it, although I am still sometimes asked if I work."
People approach her on the Metro or in stores to ask about Rudy. Ms. Lavigne says she's glad to hear children ask questions and their parents explain working dogs to them so they learn ... It's the ones that don't ask questions that have the stereotypes."
Noting that the subject of disabilities used to be "very out of sight and out of mind," Ms. Lavigne said, "it's only in the past 20 or 30 years that we have been looking at inclusion and mainstreaming.
"It started with the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of the 1970s. It's been 10 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act began mandating retrofitting of buildings to accommodate wheelchairs and other needs.
"It's coming," she said. "But it's slow. Progress is not fast enough
nationwide when the unemployment rate of people with disabilities who can and want to work stands at 70 percent."
She said, "People write you off immediately when you come through the door in a wheelchair to apply for a job. They question your ability to lift or get 25 pounds from point A to point B. You have to go in and say 'this is what I bring to the table. If you want your productivity increased, hire me.' A positive outlook is necessary for everyone, but especially if you are disabled."
She believes "stores and retail shops are coming to understand the power of accessibility. With 54 million Americans with disabilities, they are a huge part of the market.
"People choose stores that are accessible over those that aren't. Owners should do this, not because it's the right thing to do or legal, but because they want to make money."
An information and referral coordinator at the National Office of United Cerebral Palsy, Ms. Lavigne is in a good position to know how to access services and that "the cornerstone of disability awareness education is empowerment."
Between now and the national competition next summer, she's hoping to get lots of speaking engagements with children and adults and people with and without disabilities, as well as donations and sponsors to help her raise the money to go to the nationals.
"I would love to speak to children in schools," she said. "The more I can get out there and talk about service dogs and the program, the better."
She will tell her audiences how her own dog picks up change and pens, opens doors and turns lights on and off. "He travels with me on planes, trains, cars. We are together 24-7. It was really nice to be able to live on my own and be independent.
"Just by doing what everybody else does," she said, "that's the best message I can send. I'm like everyone else. I have an incredible opportunity, just the fact that I am working."
Anyone interested in having Ms. Lavigne as a speaker can contact Robert Watson or Diana Stewart of the Ms. Wheelchair program at 301-657-3283.
Reprinted with permission from the Frederick News-Post