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James Brady Speaks at Madison

Former White House press secretary and gun control activist kicks off Disability Awareness Week.

Although he was about 30 minutes late and the student crowd at James Madison High School was getting rambunctious, when former Ronald Reagan press secretary James Brady started speaking, his cool and blunt flair matched his audience's feistiness.

When asked what can young people do, Brady replied, "Be careful when you're walking with the president of the United States."

With one-line quips, Brady explained to students at Madison how his life changed since he became disabled. Brady's appearance at Madison kicks off Disability Awareness Week, which will be held June 2 to 6.

"I have a good life today. I do a lot. It's just not as easy as before," Brady said to the audience as he was seated in his wheelchair.

Brady became disabled when he received a gunshot wound during a failed assassination attempt on President Reagan on Mar. 30, 1981. As a result, he suffered brain damage and became unable to walk.

His injuries led him and his wife Sarah to crusade for stricter gun control legislation. Known as "the Brady bill," the passed legislation requires background checks for all gun purchasers, except for those at trade shows.

But gun control legislation has recently come into the news again, as the federal ban on Uzis and other semiautomatic weapons is up for renewal.

"I'm not surprised," Brady said, when asked about his opinion on President George W. Bush's lack to support the renewal. "I think as time goes on, he's going to wish more and more that he hadn't have done that."

Brady briefly explained how his life was like before and after the assassination attempt. Brady called himself an active person who had just gotten his dream job. He was on television almost every day. He was married with a 2-year-old son and played tennis.

"Most importantly, I felt independent. I felt in charge of my life," Brady said.

But when he was shot, his life changed. He became dependent on others. To go traveling or do a pizza run requires a lot of preparation, Brady said.

"There are about 50 things I have to do to be spontaneous," joked Brady.

BRADY ALSO FIELDED questions from students ranging from how he felt about John W. Hinkley, Jr., the man who shot him, to his views on the Iraqi conflict. The discussion turned political as Brady admitted his dislike of President Bush and spoke of his support for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which enforces public buildings to have accommodating features for those with disabilities.

"I hope that you will make our communities accessible for those who have disabilities," Brady told students at the end of his prepared remarks.

Besides students, several area residents also made it to Brady's talk. Burke resident Maryanne Hoffmeier had heard about his appearance through county school channels, and wanted to hear him speak because she has a daughter with disabilities and works with people with brain injuries.

"I have a lot of admiration for Mr. Brady," Hoffmeier said. "I enjoyed what he had to say… I admire his sense of humor and his ability to make the best of an unfortunate situation."

Madison's Disability Awareness Week continues in June with speakers from the National Association of the Deaf, the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Special Olympics. The senior vice president of the Muhammed Ali Center will also make an appearance.

Madison's Combating Intolerance class organized Disability Awareness Week. The class also sponsored three other awareness weeks earlier in the school year; an Islam Awareness Week, a Civil Rights Awareness Week and a Sexual Equality Awareness Week.