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Disabled people constantly strive to break down the barriers - real and symbolic - that keep them apart from the rest of society. Gordon Bertolin is doing his part for the cause.

The 41-year-old Bertolin, who uses a wheelchair, appeared this summer in a Hecht Co. advertisement for men's clothing.Company executives said they received favorable responses and plan to use disabled men, women and children in future ads.

Hecht's contacted the Multiple Sclerosis Society and asked the organization to recommend several disabled people who might be interested in appearing in a newspaper ad. The full-page display showed Bertolin and three other men modeling clothing - with Bertolin seated in his wheelchair.

"I don't think I was ever annoyed that there were no disabled people in ads," Bertolin said. "But it is a definite positive now."

Peggy Disney, spokeswoman for Hecht's, said the company was careful how the initial ad would be photographed.

"The first time we used it, we did not want to put just one figure in the ad," Disney said. "We were not trying to draw attention to the person with the disability."

Hecht's is one of more than a dozen companies using disabled people in their advertising.

"It's a very good trend," said Mark Lewis, head of the National Organization on Disability. "We pushed for it as part of (James) Brady's `Calling On America' campaign to expand the participation of people with disabilities in everyday life."

Brady, the former White House press secretary who was wounded in the assassination attempt on former President Reagan, is the spokesman for the private, nonprofit organization. Brady is leading a nationwide campaign to bring about the full participation and acceptance of disabled Americans.

Bertolin is a project development officer who helps plan assistance for Latin American nations.

"Why not have them in advertising?" asked Dale Eazell, chairman of the Medical Rehabilitation Education Foundation, which helps people reconstruct their lives after a traumatic illness.

"Our task is to educate the public regarding the value of the handicapped," Eazell said. "It's been my experience that people in wheelchairs are incredibly capable and dynamic human beings."

There are about 43 million physically handicapped people in the United States.

It's not known which company was the first to use the disabled in ads, but the list is growing.

Bell Atlantic has used ads with deaf children signing to promote 911 service.

Nike, Kmart, Target, Anheuser Busch, Levi, Nordstrom Department Stores, McDonald's, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble and IBM are also using ads that depict the handicapped.

"It sends a couple of messages - one that the retailers and businesses are increasingly aware of a very big market of potential consumers. It sends another message that the business community must have some statistics to show that these kind of ads are beneficial for sales," Lewis said.