Community Magazine

Disability is in the Eye of the Beholder

By Fadi Bejjani @DrFadiBejjani

Circa 1991, I had the biggest inspirations about this topic. One was simple and very fortuitous. It happened when I was a visiting professor in Beijing and I had to cross the main street. There were an army of bicycles ready to transform me into a door mat. More specifically there were a few UHAUL- cyclists that were literally transporting the entire household neatly anchored and balanced around their bike, including fridges and dressers. I was in awe!
Another inspiration, more complex but deeper was Federal Judge Leonard Suchanek—chairman and chief judge for the General Services Administration's Board of Contract Appeal. I cooperated with the BLIND judge in the organization and production of the First World Congress on Technology in the Work Place for People with Disabilities. This was on the heels of the ADA which Judge Suchanek had a lot of input in. He was not born blind but lost his vision as a toddler when his eyes got infected and he was too poor to get treatment. I had the opportunity to watch the Judge in action quite a bit around DC and I was in awe overtime. As astonishing were the attendees of this very trend-setting and inspiring Congress: Dozens and dozens of prominent people in authority from all over the world with multiple disabilities, i.e. blind in a wheelchair. These were only matched by the similar American attendees from all high spheres of government: Directors at the CIA, NSA, Army, SSA, etc. I had never seen in my life so many severely disabled people with so many degrees and so many high official posts! It was a feast to the eye and a crowning of the glass half-full motto. I do not believe any of these people considered themselves disabled let alone recipients of some government or other subsidy. Of course I do not think many had back surgery because that would have been different!
Even though I regretfully signed a lot of Social Security applications for patients over the last 30 years, I am a "glass half-full" advocate. I demonstrated that to myself in my 1988 scooter accident that I described in another post. I also had some stellar patients who reinforced this belief. At NYU in the early 90s, I had the privilege one day to consult with the pianist of Engelbert Humperdinck. He had advanced Multiple Sclerosis and he wanted to continue playing and composing. He did not want to be on SSDI but wanted them to pay for an elaborate computer music set-up that we designed for him. I got SSA to pay the $20,000 for the device which was novel in those days with MIDI interface and glove-activated keys.
Another paraplegic patient in upstate New York. He broke his back in a race car and ended up in a wheelchair but he opened a mechanics shop and went to work EVERYDAY. He actually kept building race cars for his son and went with him all over the country to participate in races
I also remember that young man on TV who played classical guitar with his feet. because he had bilateral amelia (no arms).
In my 30 years of practice, I have signed more handicap sign forms to lazy patients with minor disabilities who did not want to work too far to enter the store, than too severely disabled para- or quadriparetic patients who drove their own vehicles. I believe our society encourages people to take on the disabled mantle. Look at how many handicap parking spots you see in a skating rink parking lot! Only in America! It starts with a handicap placard which seems innocuous and the disabled persona develops from there on. It becomes a second nature totally out-of-synch with the initial physical impairment, injury or disease.


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