Redwood City – Angela Piazza wants you to know something that might save someone’s life.
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Maybe hers, if you encounter Plum, her mischievous Labrador retriever, alone.
“If you ever see a service dog by itself,” Piazza said, “follow it because that means they should be with their owner. They’re trying to tell you something.”
Plum wears a blue vest that identifies her as a service animal. Piazza wears a lot of yellow fur that clings to her clothes and her wheelchair. It works for them.
Piazza is the current president of the San Mateo County Commission on Disabilities, where she advocates for the same rights and services as everyone else.
Angela Piazza and Plum, a service dog who, when not on duty, enjoys tug-of-war and belly rubs.
This Sunday, Dec. 3, is International Day Of Persons With Disabilities, proclaimed by the United Nations “to promote an understanding of disability issues and to mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.”
In honor of the day, Piazza took time to share what our own San Mateo County Commission on Disabilities does and how residents can better understand the needs and priorities of our friends and neighbors with a disability. And that is no small number: about 10 percent of San Mateo County residents – that’s roughly 76,000 individuals – have a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Piazza was born with cerebral palsy, defined as a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. She grew up in Millbrae (but she’ll joke that, at 4 foot 6, she didn’t grow up that much) and in middle school, with the aid of a walker, served as a crossing guard.
She graduated from Mills High, class of 1989, and then Sacramento State University. The effects of cerebral palsy worsened over the years.
“As I got older, I used a wheelchair in college but only on campus. I never used it when I would go out with friends or anything like that. And that goes right to the stigma,” Piazza said. “I felt I can’t go places because of the wheelchair. People will look down on me. ‘Oh, you’re in a wheelchair, you can’t do anything.’ So even someone with a disability has that mindset. I wanted to be like everyone else.”
Piazza had two kids while living in the Sacramento area, then moved to Redwood City in 2002 as a single mom. (Her son is now 24, her daughter 26.)
She began using a wheelchair fulltime about 15 years ago. “It’s a great conversational piece with children. Kids have all types of questions. The other day a little girl asked me, ‘Do you go to bed in your wheelchair?’ We get that one a lot. That’s a fun one.”
(Editor’s note: It’s a study in grit and determination to watch her move from her wheelchair to the driver’s seat of her 2015 Subaru Forester. From there, she removes the chair’s side panels, quick release wheels and various other parts. She then drapes a blanket to her left to protect the SUV’s paint and hauls the body of the chair up and over her lap, placing it on the passenger side.)
Then there are the strangers who come up behind and push her wheelchair (never, ever do that, Piazza said) or the ones that make tired comments. “The other day I was leaving somewhere and a gentleman was nice enough to open the door, then said, ‘Don’t get a ticket in that.’”
“Really? I’m hoping his wife yelled at him for that. That just gets old fast,” she said. “Old, fast and rude.”
At 53, Piazza dedicates her time to advocating for rights enshrined in the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act and spreading the word that people with a disability want to be treated like everyone else. “For the most part, the ADA is my passion,” she said.
That’s when she’s not at her job that entails working with developmentally disabled adults.
Tireless and ever ready to discuss ways to improve the world for people with visible or hidden disabilities, a transcription app tallied her at speaking at more than 200 words a minute.
During an interview next to The Magical Bridge Playground in Redwood City, Piazza shared insights and experiences from her life.
On how to talk to or describe someone with a disability
“Just be yourself and treat them like anyone else and wait till they bring it up,” Piazza said. “She’s a wheelchair user. She has a dog with her. You know, maybe the hair color, things like that.”
(Editor’s note: The National Center on Disability and Journalism publishes a Disability Language Style Guide with guidance.)
On one of the biggest challenges faced by people with a disability
“Housing,” Piazza said without hesitation. “Homes and apartments are all built cookie-cutter style, especially low-cost housing … Forget the bath and make it an accessible shower. If we don’t get that just make everything a little lower and give me grab bars.”
Nearly 75 percent of the state’s housing stock was built prior to 1990, the year the Americans with Disabilities Act became federal law. This means that the majority of California’s housing stock is likely inaccessible for people with disabilities.
And, Piazza said, there’s the lack of affordable options: Extremely low-income households are more than twice as likely to include an individual with a disability than households earning above moderate incomes.
On becoming “Ms. Wheelchair California”
Piazza received recognition as the 2019 Ms. Wheelchair California, a competition based on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation. Its purpose is to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman to represent people living with disabilities.
“It gave me my voice. It really did. It really brought out what I wanted and where I wanted to go,” she said.
On the future of work
The shift among the general workforce to at-home and remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic benefited people with disabilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The jobless rate for people with a disability – typically in double digits – fell below 10 percent in late 2021 and in October of this year stood at 7.4 percent.
“Living with a disability is not easy,” Piazza said. People with disabilities want to work, she said, and are accustomed to using technology to enhance communication while the acceptance of at-home work lessened the need for commuting to offices or worksites.
“We adapt a lot,” she said.
And on what can all of us to do help our disabled friends and neighbors
“Remind businesses to make their establishments accessible,” she said. “That’s a big one.”
About the Commission on Disabilities
Purpose of the Commission on Disabilities:
- Advise the Board of Supervisors on disabilities-related issues
- Educate the public on the needs of people with disabilities
- Create opportunities for people with disabilities
- Coordinate resources for people with disabilities
- Advocate for people with disabilities on systems issues
- Highlight the accomplishments of people with disabilities
Interested in Becoming a Commissioner?
Learn how to apply. Contact Andrew Eng at [email protected] for assistance or more information.