Incapacity advocate retires at 84 after a long time of activism

It is easy to take for granted some of the rights we have, to take for granted that we always had them, to forget the people who fought so hard to win them.

That’s what I kept thinking to myself this week when I was standing at a Van Nuys curb that was more or less covered in blue paint, even if time had run out of time.

This blue curb on the 14000 block of Haynes Street was painted in 1978 – the first of its kind in California and possibly the nation, though it’s not easy to verify.

In each case, a parking space was designated for people with disabilities at a time – 12 years before the Disabled Americans Act – when the concept of allowing or even requiring such designated spaces was new.

And as I stood on this curb with the person who urged the need for this space and others, and then urged them to be legalized, I thought if we could make every effort to expand our rights as they did deserving, the curb would be a historic monument and she would be a household name.

Norma Jean Vescovo enters the administrative office of the center.

Norma Jean Vescovo enters the administrative office of the Independent Living Center in Southern California on Haynes St., Van Nuys.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Not only did Norma Jean Vescovo help create blue curbs, she has been a leading force in combat and in winning many other battles, from using Los Angeles buses to stopping and picking up wheelchair users $ 200 million of legal regulation to ensure that a fair proportion of housing in the publicly funded affordable housing developments is fully accessible for wheelchair users and people with disabilities, including the visually and hearing impaired.

I had never heard of Vescovo myself until last week when a colleague of mine passed on a press release announcing her resignation at the age of 83. It seemed remarkable to keep any job to yourself up to this age – although I soon learned from speaking to her that she is actually 84 and that the work she has done is far more impressive than her longevity at it.

As the executive director of the not-for-profit Independent Living Center in Southern California since it opened in 1976, Vescovo has relentlessly supported and assisted people with disabilities – fighting for their civil rights, fighting attitudes and stereotypes that belittle them, and working to improve their opportunities for many Fronts.

The center, which receives government funding but also accepts donations, provides a wide range of free services to people with disabilities, including housing assistance, computer and vocational training, job placement and coaching, peer support, and independence classes from those who need additional help in areas such as meal planning, money management, self-care, and people skills.
It helps people with traumatic brain injuries relearn their lost skills. It helps those struggling to access benefits figure out how to navigate government programs, applications and forms. The aim of the center, which has always employed people with disabilities, is to provide those who use its services with the tools they need to help themselves.

“When someone works for something, there is a better chance they will stick with it,” Vescovo told me. “If you do it for her, it’s like Ma takes care of her.”

Norma Jean Vescovo in a training room to help people with disabilities learn independent life skills.

Norma Jean Vescovo shows a training room in which people with disabilities can learn independent life skills.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A network of 28 such centers now covers the state, but Vescovo was one of the first.

And as the Centers’ reach grew over the years, so did Vescovo’s commitment to their growing cause, which began closely and personally.


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When she was 8 years old, Vescovo was withdrawn from school in Denver after she was diagnosed with polio. Her doctor later found that she had rheumatic fever and rheumatoid arthritis. She spent most of her childhood at home and was unable to receive educational support from her school until she was 14. At that point she was given one hour of lessons a week provided she went to the teacher’s house. Even so, she went back to school at 15, graduated, and won a college scholarship.

She was married and lived in the valley when it became clear that her second child, a son who was intellectually precocious, was lagging behind in his physical development. Doctor after doctor couldn’t diagnose what was going on – and when she tried to enroll him in a regular public school, she was turned away. When her son was 6 years old, she finally got a diagnosis: cerebral palsy. She also got him a place in a special school. By then, she had just had her third child, a daughter who was also suffering from cerebral palsy.

Vescovo’s life as a disability activist really began when she began working on common issues with other parents of children with disabilities. She moved from organizing parents at her son’s school to organizing parents in several special schools to demand better services and educational opportunities, and higher expectations of their children.

As her network expanded and she learned the diversity of people with many different types of disabilities being disadvantaged, neglected and discriminated against, so did her ambition to make change. She worked with Mayor Tom Bradley to create the city’s first office for the disabled. She was involved in creating many laws on disability and helped people with disabilities be remembered in many other laws on different topics.

In all fairness, it is difficult to sum up even a fraction of Vescovo’s activism. She has done so much in so long.

Norma Jean Vescovo looks at a photo wall

Norma Jean Vescovo looks at a wall with photos of people with disabilities who have found work with the help of the center.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“For Norma, it wasn’t her job, it was her life,” said Joe Xavier, director of the state rehabilitation department, which offers programs and services that help people with disabilities find employment, live independently, and achieve justice and equality . He said he had known her for decades and got to know her and the strength of her beliefs well over the past 12 years.

She was never one to pull back when she thought something needed to be done, he told me. “She was open to talking about how, but was rarely open to talking that started with no.”

Xavier, who is blind, said that he often attributes his successes to “having someone who sets an expectation” that he would achieve and “making people believe in me when I haven’t always believed in myself” . Vescovo’s work exemplified this kind of support, he said. He described her to me as “a giant”.

Personally, she is a tiny woman who speaks in a quick clip. On the phone and when I visited her this week, she staggered one story after another.

One of my favorites had to do with a very media-savvy protest that she organized in 1981.

In the center, Vescovo often heard from wheelchair users about the problems with public transport. You would wait at a bus stop only to be seen by the bus driver and continue on, or the bus would stop and the driver would claim not to have the key to operate the wheelchair lift or not to know how or enough time to use it.

She decided to make the little-known problem clearly visible. She had a group of protesters, many in wheelchairs, blocking a highway ramp in Tarzana. When the protest took place, a bus stopped in front of the cameras and its driver refused to pick up a woman in a wheelchair. He said he didn’t have an elevator key. According to Vescovo, missing keys appeared to have been found the next day after the press coverage.

Things got better, she told me – hardly perfect, but better. There is still so much fighting on so many fronts.

“Every time you do something, you learn more about what you can do and who you can go to and who you can count on,” she told me. And then you have to keep circling back to make sure the progress you’ve made is preserved – to fight to hold the ground you gained in the face of budget cuts and new administrations and neglect.

Norma Jean Vescovo with her successor Christopher Wells.

Norma Jean Vescovo with her successor Christopher Wells in her office in Van Nuys.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

All of these make retirement difficult. “I put the world on his shoulders,” Vescovo told me about her successor, Christopher Wells, who at 38 is less than half her age.

Vescovo is now using a walker, but she is not a person who shows many signs of slowing down in any other way. She turned the center over to Wells last month. But she told me that she plans to be there to help him learn the ropes by at least April.

After all, there is so much history to tell.

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