Paulette Marie Eberle is not your average disabled woman who rolls with the punches and takes whatever aid she can get. She is a co-chair of the state's largest citizen watchdog coalition, New Jersey Citizen Action and the VP of Next Step, a disability rights movement where she advocates for People with Disabilities for Social and Economic Justice. Next Step™ is a grassroots movement that addresses the root causes as well as the symptoms of the social and economic exclusion of people with disabilities and other devalued groups through non-violent strategies and tactics.
Paulette is my pick for end of the year awareness messages as an inspiration and ray of hope to those like her. She is also a personal friend and like family to us. As a child at age seven, she strung up her first sign for the introduction to the NAACP and helped out in a march. Her illness had not yet developed but her mind was already in gear setting forth a path of advocacy for those in need of a voice. She said, "Back in my day, in Michigan, we would go to people's homes for secret meetings." As the years went on, Paulette learned quickly about discrimination and learned what it meant to be hated. Born of Swedish and Indian decent of the Ojibwa tribe, catapulted what has become her life's work today into a very difficult lifestyle.
She had been diagnosed with Lupus, then at age 21 after her marriage, developed rheumatoid. Blindness set in over a 25-year period. "I discovered that the ADA had not fulfilled it's intent for people with disabilities. Seventy-five percent was the unemployment rate. They are low income people. Housing is not being considered and in New Jersey alone, there are over 2,500 people restricted with demands because of their disabilities. There isn't enough housing to go around within our communities." Paulette goes to tell me she feels, "imprisoned" and calls these places "institutions."
This is due in part Paulette says because there's a lack of funding. "It's economics. In urban areas there are buildings yes, but the bathrooms aren't being turned over to code standards." Paulette also faces another challenge and that is as a woman. "What struck me big as a young woman during the Civil Rights Movement moving on to Vietnam, was how I became discriminated against not just as a disabled person but one who was also a woman."
Paulette says it is never-ending but that does not mean you stop the fight. She spends her life putting "Band-Aids on problems" and says that "the soul of humanity has not changed." She feels that "Fear of the unknown is the problem. There is hating going on everywhere and when I see children in wheelchairs it breaks my heart. People like us become invisible and I ask how can we recover?"
The good news is that she says transportation has improved over the years with lowering lifts for wheelchairs, artificial limbs, and walkers. She also brings up abuse that can go on sexually with the disabled with any home agency or in-patient care when the person is not able to defend themselves. Abuse stands out in her mind every day. "In society sexual attacks occur and are overlooked as we need to foster an understanding that it happens."
We're a little better off medically from 10 years ago, since taking certain tests as a para or quadriplegic in a small office and little room to move. Still today, much remains lacking in accepting that as a society healthy or disabled, we must help one another and pay it forward. "Taxi cabs see me then see my seeing eye dog Prudy, and charge me double for the ride." Paulette is also a big advocate on hiring more disabled people as she says, "You'll see how hard they will work for you and want the work. This can yield a better employee most of the time."
Today, adding to Paulette's list of illness is ALS, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. She tells me, "We are participants in all areas of life whether it be state, county, the world disabled or not. Every issue is their issue. Raising taxes effects everything and everyone. It's all relevant. School boards are another part and elections. There are the banks and doctors. For equality to happen we must commit to our communities and have it suitable for all."
Paulette worked with Executive Director Phyllis Salowe-Kaye who received the "Women of Distinction" award this past spring. Although progress is being made by many hard-working individuals for this cause, we are still in need to raise awareness, make a positive difference and lend a helping hand.
Paulette's take on life has always been, "What... me worry?" -- Alfred E. Newman
Since this article was written Paulette had to decrease her activity with the advocacy organizations as her health slowly declines, but don't be fooled as she is not going anywhere anytime soon!