It would be inaccurate saying 64-year-old Carolyn Schwebel is a one-woman army advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. That’s because she has a great deal of help, including her friend, Carmena, and husband, John.
But Schwebel, who reads this column in the Atlantic Highlands Herald (New Jersey), did begin declaring war of sorts in 1994 on non-compliant governments and business owners in her area of New Jersey. Her weapons have been various federal laws, including the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The group Schwebel co-founded, The Equalizers, currently has about fifteen different accessibility lawsuits in New Jersey progressing simultaneously.
‘I have cerebral palsy, and it affects my walking,’ said Schwebel in a telephone interview. Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder, usually acquired at birth or before, permanently affecting body movement and muscle coordination.
She added, ‘I had some falls at work (in the ’90s), so I began using a cane, and now I use a wheelchair when a lot of walking is involved.’ She described her walking as an awkward rocking side to side motion, with one leg shorter than the other. The cerebral palsy does not affect her speech.
Raised in Vermont, Schwebel attended the University of Illinois, which, in the early 1960s, had a special program for students with disabilities. Graduating with an English teaching degree, she interviewed with a Chicago city schools recruiter, who said she couldn’t work there as a teacher because she wouldn’t be able to lead fire drills. After she earned master’s and doctorate degrees, she and her husband eventually ended up in New Jersey.
In 1994, when working as a school psychologist, she fell down numerous times while trying to navigate inaccessible school buildings. From the falls, she badly injured her knee, and had to use a cane. In the process, she filed an accessibility complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Education, and from it became a disability advocate.
Advising potential advocates, she said, ‘You have to be prepared for people who are mean and will hate you. The main thing you need is persistence, even stubbornness.’
Finally, she said, you have to be able to take the heat. Some people have cussed at her. Others have accused her of being a disability advocate for the money, even though she plows back any negligible financial benefits received from settlements to use for further advocacy.