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Disability Life
Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities

Disability Life
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by Homer Page

I had gotten to my office early that morning, but as I walked in the door, I could hear the insistent ring of the telephone.

"Freddy is dead," she said. I could detect an angry tone in her voice. "He lost control of his wheelchair on a hill and rolled into an intersection. A bus ran into him. He was killed instantly."

I remembered the first time I had met Freddy. His mother brought him into my office. He lived at home and came to campus for one class a semester. Freddy had cerebral palsy. His speech was difficult to understand. He had little use of his hands and he could walk only with the use of a walker, and then only very slowly. But Freddy wanted to be on his own. He asked me to help him run away from home.

Freddyís mother had a serious spinal curvature. His younger brother was living at home and near death from the effects of muscular dystrophy. His father was a farmer who wanted to protect his family and keep them with him so he could care for them. But Freddy wanted to be free.

His mother told me, "I am a person with a disability. I know that he wants to be independent, but how can he be?"

It was a big day for Freddy when he moved into a campus dormitory. He took a full course load, got involved with conservative political groups, and above all, he got an electric wheelchair so that he could be independently mobile.

The next several years were great for Freddy. He made friends, did well enough in school, ate his meals at the cafeteria and had an aide who came to his room to help him with his personal needs. He was even able to raise hell and get into trouble.

I got a call from the dorm manager one morning. She was frantic. "You are the director of services to disabled students," she said. "Youíve got to do something with your students." She sounded really angry.

"What have they done now?" I asked. I could tell it was bad.

"Itís Freddy," she said. "Heís the ringleader. He got all of the other wheelchair students to line up in the hall. He had one of their friends pour lighter fluid on the floor and light it. Then they drove their wheelchairs through the fire. They were playing like they were circus daredevils. They could have caught themselves on fire or burned down the dorm. This has to stop," she screamed, and then she started laughing uncontrollably.

"Take them out and hang the whole bunch of them," I said.

"Oh you can just bet I will," she chuckled. And that was just what she did.

I am sure they are still on probation. Chalk one up for Freddy.

As do most young people, Freddy wanted a girlfriend. He attended summer camp with his Catholic youth group. When he was in high school, he met a girl who promised him that when they were 21, they would get married. It must have seemed like such a long time away to her, but he believed her. When the time came, she told him that she was dating someone else. His heart was broken.

We talked and I told him, "Freddy, the odds are you will never find an able-bodied woman who will want to marry you. However, there are a lot of women with disabilities who are smart and desirable, who, if you act right and get lucky, might be willing to love you."

"Nope," he said. "My dad says I need a wife who can take care of me. I donít want a wife like me."

This was the beginning of a long, sad, and sometimes degrading part of Freddyís life.

The day finally came when Freddy had to graduate. His father knew a local politician who found Freddy a job working in the local county government. He qualified for a HUD housing program and for five years he worked at the county. Occasionally, he would come by to visit. His story was always the same. "The job is boring. They never give me anything to do. All I do is sit at my desk." This must have been true because when the politician left office, Freddy was fired.

It was during this time that Freddyís life hit bottom. A home health care manager and one of her workers came to my office.

They wanted to talk about Freddy. "We have something to discuss, and we need your help," the manager said.

The two of them were visibly upset. The younger woman appeared to be a college student. Students often took attendant care jobs.

"Okay," I said. "Whatís up?"

"I have tried to send a male aide to work with Freddy, but he wonít hear of it," she said.

"Is there a problem?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "He makes requests that are inappropriate. Last night, he asked Lynn to give him his bath. This was normal, but when he was in the bath, he asked her to massage his penis. He told her that his doctor had told him that he needed this to be done, and that his other aides did it for him. Lynn didnít believe him and she was really offended. She almost walked out on him, but she couldnít leave him in the tub."

"Iím sorry, Lynn," I said. "It was good of you to stay and help him."

Later, I confronted Freddy about this. He said that he thought they were there to help him, and that some of the others hadnít minded.

During this time, Freddy met some men who lived near him in his condominium building. They befriended him and took whatever money he had. They also took him to another city and for a big laugh arranged for the services of a prostitute for him. After that, he learned to use the bus to go visit her. She would meet him at the bus and take him to her apartment. When they were finished, she would put him back on the bus and send him home. He saw her once or twice a month for over a year. Finally, she told him that she couldnít see him anymore because she was going to be married. Once again it broke his heart. This was as close to a relationship as he ever came. He hoped for so much more.

After Freddy lost his job, he decided to go back to school and get a degree in counseling. Everything went reasonably well until time for him to do his field placement. No school or social agency would give him an internship. He and his advisor talked with a dozen or more potential supervisors. The answer was always the same. "We donít believe Freddy can work as a counselor. His physical disabilities are too severe, and we canít understand his speech. We are sorry."

In the end, I helped him get a placement with an independent living center. He had a good experience and learned a lot. He even was able to graduate, but the location lacked the credentialed staff and the professional recognition that would permit him to find employment. He spent the next two years in fruitless job search.

One day, Freddy came into my office with big news. "I am moving to Seattle," he proclaimed. "My aunt lives in the Seattle area. She is active in a program for the homeless and she thinks that she can help me find a place to live and help me establish a support network and maybe find a job," he said.

We talked for a while. I wished him well, and we said good-bye. I didnít expect that he would stay in Seattle, but he did.

It was five years before I heard from Freddy again. His mother died and he came home for the funeral. He told me that his sister was married and living out of state, his brother had died, and his father was going to be living alone. He said that his father and sister wanted him to return home and move into a nearby nursing home. In that way his father could be close enough to look after him.

"What do you want to do?" I asked.

"Iím going back to Seattle," he loudly proclaimed. "No way am I giving up my independence."

He asked me if his family refused to take him to the airport, would I take him. I assured him that I would.

"So how are you doing, Freddy?" I asked.

A tone of enthusiasm came into his voice. His answer was much more easily understood than was usually the case. "Iím doing great," he said. "Iím 40 years old, and Iím getting gray. I have lived a long time. I work for Father Joseph OíConnor at the archdiocese mission in downtown Seattle. I keep the books and talk with the men. I live in North Seattle near the University of Washington. I take the bus to work every day."

"Are you happy?" I asked.

"Yes, mostly," he said. Then he took a deep breath. "No girlfriend," he said.

I had the feeling that he wanted to talk, so I asked him to tell me about the last five years. "What have you seen and what have you learned?" I asked.

The floodgates opened. Perhaps he had just been waiting for someone to ask, or maybe just being home for his motherís funeral caused some dammed up reservoir of feeling to break loose. In any case, he began to talk and sob. It was hard to understand him, but I didnít interrupt.

"My mom said the cord was wrapped around my neck. I wasnít born right. Thatís why Iím the way I am," he sobbed. "I have always tried to be good, but sometimes I havenít been. I want to be worthy of existing, but I wonder sometimes if it would be better if I were no more. I lived for years with false hope. I pretended that someone would marry me just like I was a normal man. I pretended that my county job was a real job. I pretended that Georgie was a real lover. I lived lies all those years."

He took a deep breath. I gave him some Kleenex. He wiped his face and started again.

"I have seen men on the street who were passed out. They were stinking drunk and had nothing or no place to go, and when I saw them the next morning, they said how thankful they were that they were not like me. I have made confession to Father Joseph. I have told him how angry I am at my parents and how I hate being like I am. I have told him how bad I have been, and how sometimes I would like to kill myself. He says God loves me and forgives me. He says he respects me enough to acknowledge my sins as real sins. He thinks I am a real person. He thinks there is a purpose for my life. Sometimes I believe him."

"What do you think your purpose is?" I asked.

"I think the purpose of my life is to affirm the worth of my life and in spite of everything, never give up. I need to share my belief in my worth with those who feel worthless. Maybe once in a while it will do some good. That isnít so important, though. I just try to find the courage and the love to keep going."

I never heard from Freddy again. I donít suppose many people have ever understood what a powerful man Freddy became. His family never did. Still, he made it. He lost his life living. We should all be so blessed.

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