Md. woman who'll sing for GOP wants world to know the disabled have a voice


KINGSVILLE -- Don't let the wheelchair fool you. Cara Stewart gets around.

And not just to the roller rink, where she wheels alongside the skaters, or to the grocery store, where she drives her hand-controlled car and chases down people with the audacity to park illegally in handicapped spots, or to the playground where she takes her three young children.

Tomorrow, she'll be in Houston, where she'll sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" and translate its lyrics into sign language to open the second evening of the Republican National Convention.

She hopes her appearance there will reinforce the message she's worked so hard to spread.

"I want to be a representative of the 43 million disabled Americans and to make a statement that we have one of the largest minorities, and we have a voice, and we want to say something," Mrs. Stewart says. "We're just like everybody else."

The 34-year-old, partially paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident at age 15, has spent much of the past eight years on the road.

She's logged nearly 40,000 miles and spoken to more than 220,000 people in her campaign to demonstrate her belief that people must focus not on disabilities, but abilities.

Like singing.

She's done quite a bit of that since the 1974 accident, which killed the driver, a boy who was trying to impress her by speeding.

Mrs. Stewart often sings a patriotic tune or two before speaking to groups that hire her to tell them what it means to be disabled and to lobby for rights of the disabled.

But then singing for 60,000 people at the convention and a TV audience of millions is another matter.

She was stunned, she says, when the Bush administration, impressed with her work on behalf of the disabled as the 1988 Ms. Wheelchair Maryland, asked her to perform the national anthem.

"Frankly, I didn't [think] they'd be interested in little ol' me," she says.

Mrs. Stewart acknowledges she's a bit nervous, but says she's trying to avoid thinking about the size of the audience.

"It will be exciting for me to be up there, but not for myself. I'm not trying to push a singing career or anything.

"It's important for people to see us out doing things. That's the onlyway to break down the stereotypes. I just want to do what everyone else does without hindrances."

That helps explain why the lifelong Democrat accepted the Republicans' invitation and plans to vote for President Bush. Mrs. Stewart says he won her over because of his support for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he signed into law in 1990. Among other things, the law requires public buildings to be accessible to the handicapped.

"People have no idea of the actual difficulty of getting around," Mrs. Stewart says.

But she's more than willing to tell them, whether speaking before a group or in a parking lot.

On a recent trip to a Pizza Hut, for instance, she confronted a man who had illegally parked in a space reserved for handicapped drivers.

"A lot of people would have let it go, but we need to speak up because people are unaware," says Mrs. Stewart, who worked as an occupational therapist until she began her advocacy career in 1983.

"It's not just parking spaces. That's a small, small problem," she says. "What we have to change are the inaccessible attitudes, the people who see people with disabilities as always sickly or needing help rather than seeing us as people or customers."

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